Elon Musk Is Putting Wireless Service on the Moon (So If You Go There, You Can Watch Netflix)

It’s been 50 years since humans first landed on the Moon and we haven’t done much there since. But Elon Musk is hoping that will change very soon. He already believes there should be a base on the Moon to fire up public interest in space exploration. Then in December, President Donald Trump announced that he wanted to send astronauts back to the moon as a first step toward more distant objectives, such as Mars, where Musk is already planning to land humans sometime within the coming decade.

Musk has also said that his company SpaceX would not build a moon base although it might ferry people and materials there from Earth. But it apparently is ready to help with something else every lunar visitor needs: a way to contact people at home, communicate with other lunar visitors–and watch Netflix during off hours.

So SpaceX, along with mobile network company Vodafone, Nokia, and Audi, will be building a 4G network on the moon in 2019. Even though 5G networks are being built here on Earth, the partners chose 4G because its technology is both more stable and more able to withstand space travel. 

OK, but why build a wireless network on the Moon so soon, when nobody lives there? It’s true that Musk has said he would take space tourists to the moon in late 2018, and indeed had already collected large deposits from two wealthy individuals for the first such trip. But the planned trip is only a Moon fly-by with no landing, so the lunar tourists won’t get much of a chance to use the Moon’s wireless network. And they won’t need it, having the ship’s communication system at their’ disposal. Besides, the pricey lunar fly-by was meant to take place using a Crew Dragon capsule carried by a Falcon Heavy rocket, the same rocket that spectacularly took off earlier this month with a red Tesla Roadster and mannequin dubbed “Starman.” But Musk has said SpaceX is now focusing its attention on its BFR Rocket (for Big Fucking Rocket) and he indicated it may not do much more testing on the Falcon Heavy after all, possibly leaving Moon tourism in limbo. 

According to one report, the purpose of lunar 4G would be to support future lunar missions. Without it, humans and vehicles (such as the lunar rovers Audi is building) could only communicate by beaming signals down to the Earth and back up again. The fact that the planned network will have enough bandwidth to support video streaming raises the appealing prospect of a lunar webcam all of us could watch over the Internet. 

And of course, it’ll come in very handy for space tourists visiting the lunar surface or astronauts working to build a Moon base or on other projects. Maybe someday soon.

Exclusive: Secretive U.S. security panel discussing Broadcom's Qualcomm bid – sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A national security panel that can stop mergers that could harm U.S. security has begun looking at Singapore-based chipmaker Broadcom Ltd’s plan to take over rival Qualcomm Inc, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

CFIUS, an opaque inter-agency panel, has been in touch with at least one of the companies in the proposed merger, one source said, and met last month to discuss the potential merger of the two big semiconductor companies, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, urged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday to have the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, officially review the proposed transaction before a key shareholder vote expected on March 6, according to a letter seen by Reuters.

The pre-deal discussions by CFIUS — which are extremely rare — suggest Broadcom’s plans to move its headquarters to the United States before it completes its proposed purchase of Qualcomm may not be enough to sidestep a national security review that could threaten the deal.

Part of the CFIUS’ current concern, which is echoed in Cornyn’s letter, could lie in the fact that Broadcom has failed to strike a deal with Qualcomm and has resorted to what is essentially a hostile takeover by putting forward a slate of six Broadcom nominees for Qualcomm’s 11-member board.

If the six are elected on March 6, the vote would give control of Qualcomm to Broadcom’s nominees. That would happen before a CFIUS review or antitrust review is complete.

“I urge CFIUS to promptly review Broadcom’s proposed acquisition of control of Qualcomm’s board, and to act prior to the March 6 Qualcomm meeting to address any national security concerns that may be identified,” Cornyn wrote to Secretary Mnuchin, according to the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: A sign on the Qualcomm campus is seen in San Diego, California, U.S. November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

A spokesman for CFIUS declined to comment. Representatives for Cornyn were not immediately available for comment.

A CFIUS review in itself does not mean a deal will be halted. CFIUS, under former President Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump, has soured on high tech deals, particularly involving semiconductors, or involving sensitive information about American citizens.

Microprocessor expert Linley Gwennap, of the Linley Group, noted that Qualcomm had world-leading chips in several areas.

“Qualcomm is a crown jewel of the American semiconductor industry,” he said. “I would think that CFIUS would be very protective of that. … Singapore is nominally a friendly country but it still seems dangerous for that level of technology to go overseas.”

Broadcom, which is based in Singapore, struggled to win CFIUS approval to buy Brocade Communications Systems late last year. In the end, that approval came just weeks after Broadcom CEO Hock Tan announced in an Oval Office ceremony with Trump that Broadcom would return its headquarters to the United States.

Broadcom declined to comment on the CFIUS process for this deal but reiterated that it intends to move forward with its move to the United States after receiving approval to do so, which is expected on May 6.

Lawyers who take deals to CFIUS and know how the panel thinks said that it was unusual, if not unprecedented, for a company to move to the United States to avoid CFIUS scrutiny. But they also said that the strategy could work.

“Broadcom could very well establish its position as a U.S. person,” one expert said privately to protect business relationships. “Would CFIUS want to look at it? They would want to be comfortable that Broadcom is actually a U.S. person within the meaning of the statute.”

Others cautioned that CFIUS could also look at the make-up of Broadcom’s board and who the major shareholders are as a way to determine if control of the company resides outside the United States.

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Chris Sanders and Lisa Shumaker

Two Singapore Airbnb hosts plead guilty to unauthorized short-term rentals

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Two Singaporeans on trial for unauthorized short-term rentals posted on Airbnb pleaded guilty in court on Tuesday in the first such cases under the city-state’s rules on short-term property letting introduced last year.

The two men were charged for letting four units in a condominium for less than six months without permission from Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and face a fine of up to S$200,000 ($152,000) per offense.

Prosecutors however requested fines of S$20,000 per charge for a total of S$80,000 for each of the two defendants, who spoke in court to plead guilty to the charges. Defense lawyers sought fines of $5,000 per charge.

The Singapore government has pledged to seek public feedback on a regulatory framework covering such rentals after the cases of the two hosts prompted a plea from Airbnb that the existing framework was “untenable”.

Airbnb, founded in 2008 in San Francisco, matches people wishing to rent out all or part of their homes to temporary guests.

The firm has clashed with hoteliers and authorities in cities including New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris, which are limiting short-term rentals in some cases.

Critics blame Airbnb for exacerbating housing shortages and driving out lower-income residents.

Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Paul Tait

Few phone makers will survive industry's brutal economics: Huawei

BARCELONA (Reuters) – The smartphone industry is bound to consolidate as the heavy investments required to remain competitive mean that, in the long-run, only a handful of firms can make money, the consumer chief of China’s Huawei Technologies [HWT.UL] said on Sunday.

Richard Yu, chief executive of Huawei’s consumer business group, said anyone at this stage in the decade-old industry’s history that had less than 10 percent market share was losing money.

Huawei is the world’s third biggest smartphone maker, trailing leaders Samsung and Apple, with a 10.2 percent market share in the fourth quarter, according to market surveys from IDC and Strategy Analytics.

“In the future, only three to four vendors can survive, maybe only less than four,” Yu told reporters following a product launch event held ahead of the Mobile World Congress.

He said other, smaller Chinese vendors were consolidating, and most would disappear, as they did not have enough resources to invest in the same levels of research and development, marketing and branding needed to gain global scale.

Richard Yu, CEO of the Huawei Consumer Business Group, presents the new “Huawei 5G CPE” router before the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Albert Gea

“If your market share is less than 10 percent you cannot be profitable. Over at 10 percent, at least, you can break even (and) over 15 percent you can make money,” he said.

He said Huawei’s smartphone business grew by around 30 percent in the last year, and would grow even faster this year, with strong growth in both January and so far this month.

Richard Yu, CEO of the Huawei Consumer Business Group, shows their 5G chip “Balong 5G01” before the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Huawei could become the second biggest smartphone maker this year or next, and sooner or later could be No.1, he said, speaking after his company unveiled a new notebook PC and two Android tablets.

It declined to launch a new flagship smartphone as it has done in the past at the Mobile World conference in Barcelona. Instead, it is set to launch its new flagship P20 smartphone at a standalone event in Paris next month, where Yu said Huawei would showcase “big and bold” innovation in camera technology.

The device will compete head-to-head with Samsung’s new Galaxy S9 – launched here on Sunday – and Apple’s iPhone X.

Looking ahead to next generation mobile networks set to roll out starting later this year in several major markets, Huawei also unveiled 5G versions of a consumer network router, its own chipset for phones.

Yu said Huawei will launch its first 5G-ready smartphone either in the third- or fourth-quarter, most likely in its Mate line of devices.

Reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Eric Auchard and Daniel Wallis

V Is For 'V-Shaped'

I get questions from time to time both from readers and from at least two of my friends on the buyside asking what my “process” is for writing.

Obviously, I’m aware that I write a lot. And sure, sometimes when I step back at the end of the month and take stock of the total number of posts I’ve penned between my site, this platform and one other outlet where I’m a contributing editor, I think “gee, that’s a lot of posts.”

But none of it is really based on a “process” where that means having some kind of template and/or starting out on any given day with a list of posts I want to write and a schedule for writing them. That seems to be what people are looking for when they ask me about “process” and with apologies to anyone who has asked me that question and ends up reading this, that sounds like something akin to torture. If that’s what “process” is, well then you can count me out.

I mean I guess technically I do “work” for myself, but when I say (as I did in my Friday evening missive) that I’m a “slave” to the keyboard, you’ll note that the “slave” characterization was accompanied by the adjective “willing”, and as anyone who has followed me since I adopted the Heisenberg moniker in early 2016 is acutely aware, this has been an evolving transformation that has more to do with circumstance than it does to do with anything else. Mandatory lifestyle changes conspired with my geographical location to put me in a position where all there is to do is write and happily, what I like to write about is a subject that is constantly evolving (markets) and presents new narratives and new twists and turns on a daily basis. So basically, I just freestyle it as the mood strikes. That’s the “process” and I probably don’t deserve as much credit as I get from readers on this platform for being coherent. You’re getting polished Heisenberg here. Over on my site, you get off-the-cuff Heisenberg who is considerably less “procedural” about things.

Anyway, this post is a great example of how these pieces come together. Here it is, Saturday morning, and I was playing with the color scheme on one of my SPX charts to see how different shades of navy blue look on my 4K monitor versus my 1080p monitor while wondering (aloud, unfortunately) what percentage of readers use 4K monitors versus 1080p. Well that S&P chart was zoomed in on February so of course it’s V-shaped. As it happens, that chart window was overlapping a BofAML note pulled up as a .pdf and the title of the BofAML note is: “Post-shock hedges in case V-shaped recovery falters.”

So, I thought the following: “I’ll write something about V-shaped recoveries and I’ll use this anecdote about relying on happenstance rather than ‘process’ as an introduction.” And now here we are, 495 words in and talking about February’s V-shaped recovery. So let’s get to it without further ado. Here’s the chart:

(Heisenberg)

As you can see, the buy-the-dip mentality is not dead.

What accounts for that? Well obviously it’s not possible to answer that question definitively unless you just want to go with something amorphous like: “some people were buying.”

But it is possible to talk about some of the factors that are likely at play and also to think about it in the context of the post-crisis market regime.

For one thing, there’s buybacks. You might recall that two Fridays ago, Goldman noted that on Monday, February 5, the bank’s buyback desk saw the notional value of repurchases on behalf of corporate clients surge to the highest level since the market turmoil that accompanied the August 2015 yuan devaluation. Ultimately, the worst week for stocks in two years ended up being the biggest week on record for Goldman’s buyback desk:

(Goldman)

This week, the bank was out with an update on that and here’s what they had to say:

The Goldman Sachs Corporate Trading Desk recently completed the two most active weeks in its history and the desk’s executions have increased by almost 80% YTD vs. 2017.

They attribute this both to the correction and to the tax cuts. All told, Goldman expects a 23% jump in buybacks in 2018, which means that once again, the corporate bid will be the single largest source of U.S. equity demand.

Some people characterize buybacks as a synthetic short vol. position. I’m not sure I love that characterization, but what’s indisputable is that when you’re explicitly short vol., it helps that the largest source of demand for equities is to a great extent price insensitive (as the corporate bid is). More to the point, there is no question that buybacks have helped to underwrite the buy-the-dip mentality over the past several years. There is both an explicit element (they are actually buying shares) and an implicit element (the corporate bid makes other investors more confident in their own decision to stay long risk) to this dynamic.

In addition to that, the systematic deleveraging (or, more directly, the forced de-risking) catalyzed by the quick surge in volatility reversed itself. Although analysts who monitor flows from risk parity, vol.-targeting strats, CTAs, etc. are generally balanced in their assessment, there’s a rather unfortunate propensity for journalists and some bloggers to only talk about the downside. That is, they’ll be happy to warn you about the forced deleveraging, but then they aren’t so keen on telling you that once that’s run its course, there will be an inevitable releveraging unless conditions continue to deteriorate and this time, things have not in fact continued to deteriorate. As JPMorgan’s Marko Kolanovic wrote on Thursday, “in terms of systematic selling, this is largely over [and] in fact our models show that volatility targeting strategies may now start very slowly rebuilding their equity positions.”

Meanwhile, I’m not entirely sure that hedge funds were forced out of their positions. I’m just kind of winging it here (so as Jeremy Irons put it in Margin Call, “give me some rope“), but note what else Kolanovic says in the same note:

Let’s look at the positioning of investors and expected flows. First, we note that the Hedge Fund beta to equities experienced an unprecedented drop over the market sell-off. This de-risking (and in some cases shorting) happened largely via buying of downside options (and selling of index products) and might not be entirely captured by prime brokerage data. For instance, open interest on index put options rose by ~$500bn shortly after the sell-off. Hedge funds went from a near-record-high equity beta, to a near-record-low equity beta.

Now look at this chart from Goldman that shows you the most prevalent hedge fund positions as of the end of Q4:

(Goldman)

Finally, consider one more chart and the accompanying color from Goldman:

As the S&P 500 suffered its first 10% decline in two years, our Hedge Fund VIP basket declined in absolute terms but outperformed both the broad market and the largest short positions.

VIP

It kind of seems like no one was forced out of these positions and a lot of the stocks in that table are the names that have helped carry the market.

Again, that’s kind of piecemeal and isn’t meant to do anything other than perhaps spark some debate and make you think, but there’s enough in there to support the contention that this was a technical selloff and when it abated, the fundamental backdrop reasserted itself. You’re reminded that on the fundamentals front, Q4 earnings season has seen the highest percentage of bottom-line beats since 2010, with 80% of companies reporting. That’s pretty solid.

But operating in the background here is the same dynamic that’s been effectively running the show for at least three years. I’ve described this at length over on my site and rather than try and paraphrase myself, I’ll just excerpt one recent discussion:

Part and parcel of that dynamic is the idea that the central bank put has become self-sustaining – it runs on autopilot. Why wait on dovish forward guidance (or any other signal from the monetary gods) to buy the dip when you know with absolute certainty that in the unlikely event a drawdown proves to be some semblance of sustainable, policymakers will calm markets? If you know it’s coming, well then you should buy the dip now. This becomes a recursive exercise as everyone tries to frontrun everyone else and before you know it, dips and vol. spikes are mean reverting at a record pace as the prevailing dynamic optimizes around itself.

That right there is how “BTD” morphed from a disparaging meme about retail investors to an viable strategy. It’s a play on everyone else’s expectations about forward guidance. The ultimate irony of the last several years is that the only “alpha” opportunities are to be found in fleeting risk-off episodes at the index level. When benchmarks only go one direction (up) and when the pace of the acceleration is as frantic as it was in say, January, the quest for alpha is largely fruitless. The only “alpha” is buying whatever dip you manage to get from the headline risk surrounding Mueller, North Korea, an errant central banker comment, or [fill in the blank with your favorite tape bomb]. That mentality, once it becomes ingrained, feeds on itself and becomes more efficient over time.

The problem with this (well, besides the fact that stocks won’t always go up) is that thanks to modern market structure, it leads to imbalances or, more poignantly, it makes the market more fragile. We saw this on full display on February 5. The reason for that VIX spike and the subsequent systematic unwind was that thanks to the continual reengagement of the vol. sellers/dip-buyers, vol.-sensitive strats were running record equity exposure and the rebalance risk on those VIX ETPs was sitting at a record high. That scenario was a consequence of the dynamic described above. That’s the thing about self-feeding loops – they’re great on the way up, but they are harrowing when they reverse.

Have a look at this chart from BofAML:

shatteredrecords

(BofAML)

The footnote there explains the methodology, but suffice to say the concentration of what they deem “fragility events” is a direct consequence of everything said above about the intersection of dovish forward guidance from central banks, the dip-buying mentality that predictable forward guidance fosters, and the market structure evolutions that are effectively levered to that mentality.

Implicit in that chart is the fact that the we have already retraced much of the vol. spike. Here’s a brief excerpt from the BofAML note that chart is from:

With US equity volatility retracing at record speed and contagion across assets remaining so far contained, the S&P recorded its largest gain in 5yrs last week. However, concerns that a rapid V-shaped recovery and return to “pre-shock normal” may not be a given, investors are searching for cheap hedges to bolt-on to long positions to gain confidence.

Of course, “searching for cheap hedges” is hardly synonymous with panic.

So while we’re still not there yet in terms of recouping the entirety of the drawdown experienced earlier this month, investors’ propensity to buy the dip and thus to facilitate a V-shaped recovery is clearly still intact.

The issue going forward is that this propensity will almost invariably engender more and more fragility, presaging even more dramatic fragility events. Eventually, it stands to reason that one of these shocks is going to be traumatic enough to short-circuit the dynamic outlined above or, at the very least, to make it far less efficient.

In that scenario, the only thing that would restore the market’s faith would be explicit and forceful jawboning from the Fed, the ECB and the BoJ. In other words, they would need to actually move in and repair the mechanism that makes dip-buying a viable “strategy.”

But therein lies the problem. They desperately need to normalize policy because eventually, they’re going to need some room on rates and on the balance sheet to combat the next natural downturn. Freeing up some countercyclical breathing room (or, more colloquially, “replenishing the ammo”) may very well mean ignoring technical corrections attributable to market structure breakdowns no matter how acute they are.

Because if it comes down to a choice between letting the market experience harrowing bouts of volatility in the short term or stepping in by postponing rate hikes or slowing balance sheet rundown at the possible risk of leaving themselves hamstrung when the cycle turns (i.e. when they’ll really need some ammo), they’re probably going to leave you on your own at this point.

If only to ensure they can save you later.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Yes, Uber Really Is Killing the Parking Business

An email from the CEO of a national parking operator has added some detail to the impact ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are having on demand for parking. The picture, at least for those trying to rent you a parking spot, is bleak.

In the email, unearthed from a company report by the San Diego Union-Tribune, Ace Parking CEO John Baumgardner says that demand for parking at hotels in San Diego has dropped by 5 to 10%, while restaurant valet demand is down 25%. The biggest drop, unsurprisingly, has been at nightclubs, where demand for valet parking has dropped a whopping 50%.

The numbers appear to be estimates, and Baumgardner doesn’t describe a timeframe for the declines. The assessment, written in September of last year, is also limited to San Diego, though an Ace Parking executive told the Union-Tribune that it has seen “similar” declines at its 750 parking operations around the United States. The company is focused on using technology, including better parking scheduling and booking options, to remain healthy.

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But much more is at stake than the revenues of the parking business – cities stand to benefit immensely as demand for parking drops. Parking spaces and lots generate relatively little tax revenue or economic activity relative to commercial operations, and by increasing sprawl may actually harm the economy of cities like Los Angeles.

Even back in 2015, cities were already relaxing zoning requirements that set minimum parking allotments, and there are now even more signs that city planners are thinking differently about parking. Perhaps most dramatically, a new Major League Soccer stadium being planned for David Beckham’s Miami expansion team may include no new parking at all – but will have designated pickup zones for Uber and Lyft.

The decline of parking will only be accelerated if and when autonomous vehicles become widespread. That sea-change which will make it easier to locate parking at a distance from urban destinations, and could further reduce car ownership. That will be bad news for the Ace Parkings of the world – but everyone else should welcome the decline of the urban parking lot.

Delta Just Made a Mess of a Wonderful PR Opportunity With the Victorious U.S. Curling Team (Can United Take Advantage?)

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

For most of their lives, Americans don’t care about curling.

On Friday night, however, many were riveted to heavy kettles sliding down the ice, as grown men manically swept away like cleaners on cocaine.

They were even shrieking in Hoboken when they should have been in bed. 

And then the U.S. Curling team won.

The same U.S. Curling team that, four years ago, had their captain John Shuster described by Deadspin as “the choking captain of our choking team of choking curlers.”

Some Americans just can’t bear losing.

You might imagine that the victorious U.S Curling Team is in a good mood.

So its governing body took to Twitter to make a small request of Delta Air Lines.

Perhaps they were joking. Perhaps they were hoping.

I’m a little of both when I occasionally try to incite the sympathy of an airline check-in agent.

Oh, but look how Delta replied.

Oh, no, no, no. 

Ten tons of no.

There aren’t enough no’s to sufficiently express quite what a no response this is.

Naturally, I can see that some might praise the airline for its deep-seated lurch toward equality. 

But the administrative neutrality of the tone was desperately inappropriate.

Delta surely had alternatives.

These men are folk heroes. At least for this weekend. 

Give them something and you’ll get lovely PR from it.

The airline could, for example, have teased U.S.A. Curling to switch to Direct Message and worked something out that would have delighted the team and made Delta look good.

That’s what often happens when a passenger has a complaint. The airline immediately asks them to switch to private communication.

Delta could have worked out a promotional deal. It could have agreed to ferry the team on some sort of goodwill tour around the chillier, snowier parts of America. 

It could have created a special celebration for the team when it got home.

Instead, oh, this. Ugh, this.

The tweet didn’t even say whether the flight was full and therefore its hands were tied.

I contacted the airline to ask if this was the case and will update, should I get wind.

So now United Airlines, it’s for you to knock that Delta kettle out of the airline PR circle thingy and score a fiver. (This is curling terminology, of course.)

United, you’re an Olympic sponsor, after all.

Lay on a special plane, one in which the team can actual curl down the aisle.

The PR would be worth millions.

Beware This Incredibly Silly—But Still Effective—Tax Scam

It’s almost Tax Day, which also means it’s peak tax fraud season. The Internal Revenue Service has played some epic games of cat-and-mouse with phone and online scammers over the past 10 years, but the latest scamming trend for 2018 has a particularly devious twist.

Here’s how it works: Attackers use a taxpayer’s stolen identity information to fraudulently file their returns for a refund. They allow that refund to direct deposit into the victim’s actual bank account. Then the real fun starts. The scammers—posing as the IRS—call the victim, demanding that they return the wrongfully allocated refunds. Since the victim presumably hasn’t yet filed their own taxes, it’s easy for them to assume a mistake was made—and send their money to the crook.

That’s right. They give you the money, and hope they can trick you into voluntarily passing it along to them.

“It is definitely a nationwide problem,” says IRS spokesperson Cecilia Barreda. “When people get this phone call and then they go and look at their bank account and actually do see the money there, that lends a greater credibility to what the person is hearing on the other end of the phone.”

Scammers steal the personal information to file for refunds from tax preparers, accounting firms, corporate data breaches, and other identity-theft schemes. The IRS first warned tax professionals about the rise of the new “erroneous refunds” scam at the beginning of February, and released a followup alert for the general public last week.

So far victims have been hit by at least two different versions of the hustle. In one, attackers pretend to be debt collection agents contracted by the IRS to recover fraudulent or mistakenly issued refunds. They instruct the victim how to repay the money to the “collection agency,” and capitalize on the perceived urgency of receiving a call from a collection bureau. In the other scenario, victims receive an automated call claiming to be from the IRS, in which a voice recording claims that the victim could be charged with fraud and arrested for failing to return the money. The recordings also threaten that the victim’s Social Security numbers will be “blacklisted,” whatever that means. Finally, the recording shares a case number and phone number for the victim to call to “return” the erroneous refund.

“One of the reasons this scam has been successful is because it deviates from other scams in the initial victim contact,” says Crane Hassold, a threat intelligence manager at the security firm PhishLabs, who previously worked as a digital behavior analyst for the FBI. “Most scams like this start with an initial communication that evokes fear or anxiety. This scam, though, starts with a somewhat plausible action—the ‘erroneous refund’—then follows that up with the fear and anxiety tactics. Because the initial contact is unexpected and could be interpreted as a simple mistake, it likely makes the usual fear and anxiety tactics more effective.”

As with other types of tax scams, the crucial thing to remember is that the IRS will basically never call you on the phone, and certainly not to demand payment. A call to discuss taxes owed would always be preceded by multiple paper bills, and the opportunity to appeal the amount owed. The IRS also never requires one specific payment method, and doesn’t ask for credit/debit card numbers on the phone. Finally, the bureau never threatens to bring in law enforcement during a phone conversation.

Knowing that should help people discredit virtually all IRS phone scams. If you do receive an erroneous refund, threatening calls are “not an approach that the IRS would take” to resolving the situation, Barreda says. “If you get a call, hang up and always contact the IRS directly and verify what your tax situation is,” she adds. Your bank can return a direct deposit to the IRS while you contact the bureau to explain the reimbursement, and potentially initiate identity theft protections.

Analysts see at least some good in these scam evolutions, because they mean that the steps the IRS has taken to reduce fraud are working, forcing criminals to find new hustles. Then again, that’s not so reassuring for the millions of taxpayers at risk of facing these threats head on.

The Tax Man Scammeth

Gadget Lab Podcast: A Deep Dive on Apple's HomePod

US Border Patrol Hasn’t Validated E-Passport Data For Years

Passports, like any physical ID, can be altered and forged. That’s partly why for the last 11 years the United States has put RFID chips in the back panel of its passports, creating so-called e-Passports. The chip stores your passport information—like name, date of birth, passport number, your photo, and even a biometric identifier—for quick, machine-readable border checks. And while e-Passports also store a cryptographic signature to prevent tampering or forgeries, it turns out that despite having over a decade to do so, US Customs and Border Patrol hasn’t deployed the software needed to actually verify it.

This means that since as far back as 2006, a skilled hacker could alter the data on an e-Passport chip—like the name, photo, or expiration date—without fear that signature verification would alert a border agent to the changes. That could theoretically be enough to slip into countries that allow all-electronic border checks, or even to get past a border patrol agent into the US.

“The idea of these things is that they’re supposed to provide some additional electronic security over a standard passport, which can be forged using traditional techniques,” says Matthew Green, a cryptographer at Johns Hopkins University. “The digital signature would provide that guarantee. But if it’s not checked it doesn’t.”

A letter to CBP on Thursday from senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Claire McCaskill of Missouri highlights this crucial shortcoming. More than 100 countries now offer passports that come with a digital chip, and fewer than half of those include the capability to verify the integrity of data using a digital signature. But Wyden and McCaskill stress that while the US demands that countries in the Visa Waiver program put a chip in their passports, it has failed to fully realize its own e-Passport program.

“CBP does not have the software necessary to authenticate the information stored on the e-Passport chips,” the two Senators wrote. “Specifically, CBP cannot verify the digital signatures stored on the e-Passport, which means that CBP is unable to determine if the data stored on the smart chips has been tampered with or forged.”

The situation appears particularly shameful given that the US led the promotion of e-Passports around the world. “I had assumed that they would verify this,” says Martijn Grooten, a security researcher for the information and testing platform Virus Bulletin. “It may cause some grumbles among countries in the Visa Waiver program: The US has demanded they offer e-Passports, and then only implemented the system partially themselves. It is a bit embarrassing.”

Even worse, DHS and CBP have known about the problem for at least eight years; the Government Accountability Office issued a report in 2010 detailing the need to implement signature verification for e-Passports. “DHS does not have the capability to fully verify the digital signatures because it … has not implemented the system functionality necessary to perform the verification.” GAO concluded at the time. “The additional security against forgery and counterfeiting that could be provided by the inclusion of computer chips on e-passports issued by the United States and foreign countries … is not fully realized.”

Nearly a decade later, the DHS Inspector General’s list of ongoing projects requiring oversight still doesn’t include rolling out the software for signature verification. US Customs and Border Patrol did not return WIRED’s requests for comment.

The holdup doesn’t surprise longtime border security observers. “If you look at DHS’s track record on taking proposals from the RDT&E stage through validation and deployment, it’s a horrible track record,” says Patrick Eddington, a homeland security and civil liberties policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “DHS and its components spend a huge amount of their time and money on big-ticket projects that generally have a much higher level of congressional interest than this particular e-Passport issue.”

Researchers like Virus Bulletin’s Grooten note that even without signature validation ensuring data integrity, it would still take technical skill to manipulate the information on an e-Passport’s RFID chip. And actually using a digitally altered document at a border would also often require physical document manipulation and social engineering. But RFID hacking is a developed field, and researchers have even looked specifically at e-Passport manipulation and the flaws in its implementation. Researchers have especially had success cloning real e-Passort chips and then working off of the clones to build a fake accompanying document.

“It’s reasonable to guess that most passport officers go by what’s on their screen, because it’s electronic and supposedly trustworthy,” says Johns Hopkins’ Green. “So you could do anything from forging the expiration date of a passport to completely changing all the data, including picture, that the passport officer looks at. If they don’t double check the paper version they wouldn’t notice.”

Without the ability to validate an e-Passport’s signature, CBP is leaving an exposure that analysts say would cost somewhere in the low millions of dollars to solve. Of all the low-hanging fruit in government security shortcomings, this may be the lowest.

Border Town

Airbnb’s Co-Founder Dishes on Major Overhaul to How Customers Book Lodging

Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk has big plans for its new Airbnb Plus program.

On Thursday, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced the program at a media event in San Francisco, pitching it as a more reliable way for booking temporary lodgings that meet the company’s standards. Those homes, which are inspected by Airbnb to make sure they meet certain criteria like cleanliness, will be featured higher in the company’s search rankings, and therefore more visible to users.

In an interview with Fortune, Blecharczyk, the company’s chief strategy officer, characterized Airbnb Plus as the company’s most important new feature.

“Here’s a set of properties that we actually sent someone to inspect,” he said about the difference between the typical homes people see on Airbnb and the 2,000 homes now featured in the Plus program.

To be accepted into the Plus program, homeowners must pay a $149 fee and adhere to a 100-point checklist of criteria like home cleanliness, overall design, and attractiveness. Airbnb has not said whether it would reimburse people who submit their homes for the Plus program, but are rejected.

Blecharczyk said that who the inspectors are varies by market, but that many of them have previously worked for the company as photographers. Airbnb uses contract photographers to take professional images of houses for homeowners for a fee if they want more appealing pictures for their listings. Now, Airbnb is going to arm those freelance photographers with checklists to note whether homes meet certain standards, he explained.

Airbnb developed the checklist through “customer research” and from what it learned from buying high-end rental company Luxury Retreats a year ago in a deal reportedly worth $300 million. Luxury Retreats had its own criteria for choosing resort villas and expensive retreats, and Airbnb adopted some of that for its Airbnb Plus checklist, Blecharczyk explained.

Homeowners accepted into the Airbnb Plus program would receive “premium customer support” that Blecharczyk said would consist of a dedicated customer service team, primarily consisting of outsourced workers.

Blecharczyk aims to have 75,000 homes showcased on Airbnb Plus by the end of the year.

About Chesky’s comments during the day that Airbnb would eventually debut luxury travel packages, Blecharczyk said the company is still figuring it out. Airbnb could create an online service for choosing the packages like they do with homes, or it could use live staff.

While these options are “not something we have talked about or announced,” they’re “certainly within the scope of our longer term vision,” Blecharczyk said.

One thing Blecharczyk is adamant about, however, it that while Airbnb may debut features intended to help people create vacation plans, the company doesn’t intend to become an online travel agency.

“Our storefront is really about selling what we call ‘magical trips,’” Blecharczyk said. He acknowledged that using the term “magic” to describe Airbnb could sound “funny” to some, but he believes it’s the appropriate word for the kinds of “local, unique, and authentic” stays Airbnb aims to deliver.

Finding a place to stay through Airbnb is not simply choosing a temporary roof over one’s head, but involves friendly locals inviting people to their homes and learning about each region’s customs and cultures, he said.

As an example, he cites an Airbnb rental he booked in Hawaii, where he bonded with a musician host who knew the Dalai Lama and showed him “his favorite fishing spot in Maui.” Trips like this wouldn’t be possible in more conventional kinds of lodging.

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Not everyone is happy about Airbnb’s new Plus program. The American Hotel and Lodging Association sent Fortune a comment about the overhaul, accusing Airbnb of “trying to play in the hoteling space while evading industry regulations. “

The association’s complaint is similar to the taxi industry’s stance on Uber and Lyft operating transportation services without adhering to the same regulations they do.

YouTube and Facebook Trending Tools Highlighted Parkland Conspiracy Theories

It takes a special sort of heartlessness to create a conspiracy video about a teenage survivor of one of the deadliest school shootings in US history. But it takes a literally heartless algorithm to ensure that thousands, or even millions, of people see it.

For a brief period on Wednesday, YouTube awarded the top spot in its Trending section to a conspiracy video claiming that 17-year-old David Hogg, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that killed 17 students, was in fact an actor. The prime placement of the video, which has since been removed, shocked YouTube users and members of the media alike. It shouldn’t have. YouTube’s screwup is only the latest to highlight the fundamental flaws of the algorithms that decide what gets surfaced across all social platforms.

On Trend

YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter all have a section designed to surface the most newsworthy, relevant information in the midst of a vast sea of content. But time and again, they have utterly failed. In the worst cases, the algorithms backing these trending sections drive bot-fueled hashtag campaigns promoting gun rights to the top of Twitter Trends, and fake news stories about former Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly into Facebook’s Trending Topics portal. Human curation hasn’t worked out much better. Reports that Facebook’s curators suppressed news from conservative outlets in trending topics set off a two-year cascade of crises for the social network.

But even at their most benign, these algorithmically derived trends rarely serve their expressed purpose. Based largely on conversation volume, trending tools naturally drive the public consciousness toward topics of outrage; an outrageous topic trending only adds to the outrage. How many times have you clicked on a trending topic on Twitter, only to see an endless scroll of Tweets decrying that the topic is trending in the first place? The conversation about the trend becomes the trend itself, an interminable loop of outrage that all started because some line of code decided to tell millions of people that topic was important.

The Parkland video topping YouTube’s trending page seems especially galling because it appears to have gotten there not by accident, but as the result of an attempt on YouTube’s part to fix fake news. YouTube says its system “misclassified” the conspiracy video “because the video contained footage from an authoritative news source.” Whatever minimal nuance was needed to block the Hogg conspiracy, algorithms lack it.

Though YouTube got most of the blame on Wednesday, Facebook ought to have shared it. David Hogg’s name also appeared in the company’s Trending Topics section. As of Wednesday afternoon, the first story that surfaces when users clicked his name was a news clip debunking rumors Hogg is an actor. But just three results down sat another video, showing a visibly nervous Hogg stumbling over his words with the caption, “This one is David hogg, the video that keeps coming down on YouTube. Seems like he’s been scripted #davidhogg #actor #falseflag #censorship #floridashooting #florida.”

Top videos under the trending topic “David Hogg,” as seen on Facebook on February 21, 2018.

Facebook

Below that, Facebook ranked another conspiracy post by former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Amber Smith as the top Public Post on the topic, above legitimate news sources like the Toronto Star and CBS Boston. Smith’s post reads in part, “Fascist-Book will take this down soon so view quickly.. David Hogg just 6 months ago was in an anti-gun rally (pictured, gee, no kidding!), he is not a student at the recent false flag event in Florida that was staged to take away your rights. Please, fight for your rights!”

Top public posts under the trending topic “David Hogg,” as seen on Facebook on February 21, 2018.

Facebook

In a statement, Mary deBree, head of content policy at Facebook said, “Images that attack the victims of last week’s tragedy in Florida are abhorrent. We are removing this content from Facebook.”

It’s a standard response that does little to prevent future disinformation campaigns from spreading on the platform, and does nothing to mitigate the damage that has already been done.

Half-Measures

The system is broken. It directly contributes to the spread of fake information that has plagued social media platforms for years. So why not scrap it? Why have a trending module at all? It’s largely because of money, says Dipyan Ghosh, a fellow at the think tank New America who recently left his job on Facebook’s privacy and public policy team. “The Facebook of 10 years or five years ago isn’t the Facebook of today,” says Ghosh. “This Facebook has grown tremendously in its size and influence around the world, and part of that is because of the promotion of particularly engaging content that attracts eyeballs and keeps them on the screen for long periods of time.”

Facebook and YouTube’s best answer so far, other than vague promises of algorithm improvements, has been for each to pledge to build a team of 10,000 moderators to take down problematic content. But more than 400 hours of content gets uploaded to YouTube alone each minute. Ten million humans would have a hard time keeping up, much less 10,000.

Twitter, meanwhile, announced Wednesday that it was making changes to the way automated accounts, or bots, are allowed to operate on the platform, which could have important repercussions for Twitter Trends, arguably the most easily gamed of all of the platforms. These coordinated networks of bots sync up to promote the same hashtag in rapid succession in order to get a given topic trending.

As Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former FBI special agent, recently put it during a congressional hearing on terrorism and social media, “The negative effects of social bots far outweigh any benefits. The anonymous replication of accounts that routinely broadcast high volumes of misinformation can pose a serious risk to public safety and, when employed by authoritarians, a direct threat to democracy.”

Twitter has stopped short of banning bots entirely, but it will drastically limit the ways in which they can interact with each other. In a blog post, the company detailed a number of new limitations for third-party developers designed to stop users from posting or liking simultaneously from multiple accounts, or to rally multiple accounts behind a single hashtag all at once.

It remains to be seen how effective any of these changes will be at cleaning up these trending tools. Hoaxers and trolls have, after all, found a way around almost every obstacle these platforms have put in their way up until now. Why should this time be any different?

By introducing the concept of what’s trending, tech companies told their billions of users they were going to show them the news they needed to know. And yet at a time when social platforms have repeatedly fallen down on the job, it’s worth wondering whether the public really needs their help.

Trending Machine

Artificial intelligence poses risks of misuse by hackers, researchers say

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Rapid advances in artificial intelligence are raising risks that malicious users will soon exploit the technology to mount automated hacking attacks, cause driverless car crashes or turn commercial drones into targeted weapons, a new report warns.

The study, published on Wednesday by 25 technical and public policy researchers from Cambridge, Oxford and Yale universities along with privacy and military experts, sounded the alarm for the potential misuse of AI by rogue states, criminals and lone-wolf attackers.

The researchers said the malicious use of AI poses imminent threats to digital, physical and political security by allowing for large-scale, finely targeted, highly efficient attacks. The study focuses on plausible developments within five years.

“We all agree there are a lot of positive applications of AI,” Miles Brundage, a research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. “There was a gap in the literature around the issue of malicious use.”

Artificial intelligence, or AI, involves using computers to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as taking decisions or recognizing text, speech or visual images.

It is considered a powerful force for unlocking all manner of technical possibilities but has become a focus of strident debate over whether the massive automation it enables could result in widespread unemployment and other social dislocations.

The 98-page paper cautions that the cost of attacks may be lowered by the use of AI to complete tasks that would otherwise require human labor and expertise. New attacks may arise that would be impractical for humans alone to develop or which exploit the vulnerabilities of AI systems themselves.

It reviews a growing body of academic research about the security risks posed by AI and calls on governments and policy and technical experts to collaborate and defuse these dangers.

The researchers detail the power of AI to generate synthetic images, text and audio to impersonate others online, in order to sway public opinion, noting the threat that authoritarian regimes could deploy such technology.

The report makes a series of recommendations including regulating AI as a dual-use military/commercial technology.

It also asks questions about whether academics and others should rein in what they publish or disclose about new developments in AI until other experts in the field have a chance to study and react to potential dangers they might pose.

“We ultimately ended up with a lot more questions than answers,” Brundage said.

Reporting by Eric Auchard; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

'Black Panther' Discussion: This One's Gonna Be Fun

In case you haven’t been near a theater, TV, mall, or interstate overpass, and haven’t seen the news, Black Panther opened this weekend. And it opened big. Like, history-making box office numbers big. With good reason—T’Challa (aka Black Panther) is a hero fans have been anticipating for a long time. As WIRED’s Jason Parham noted last week before Marvel’s latest movie “black superheroes were never afforded the same deification” as their white counterparts, but now Panther director Ryan Coogler has made a movie that shows what a superhero movie can truly be. A lot of us here at WIRED saw the movie over the weekend, and now that the worries of spoilers have receded (yes, this post will have them, continue at your own risk), it’s time we finally talk about it at length. Here we go—Wakanda forever!

Angela Watercutter: OK, I’m not going to say too much right off the bat because I want to know what my colleagues thought, but I will just say that Black Panther lived up to the hype. Like, the anticipation for this movie had been building for months and I was starting to worry that nothing could live up to what fans were hoping for with this movie, no matter how talented everyone working on this film is, but judging from the reaction at the screening I saw, people are thrilled. Did you guys have the same experience? How did you feel walking out of the theater? Did you sense that your fellow theater-goers were satisfied?

Peter Rubin: Angela, we were both in Hall H for Marvel’s panel at Comic-Con last July, and after Ryan Coogler surprised the crowd with some BP footage, we both know what was possible. The mood in that room—among attendees, Comic-Con staffers, and the crew itself—was not your usual “ah, this looks cool!” anticipation. Something cathartic happened in there. And even though I had the opportunity to go to a press screening earlier last week, I skipped it, because I wanted to see it for the first time in a theater full of people who were invested in it.

I wasn’t disappointed. Not by the movie, and not by the feeling of joy and lightness (and yes, Oakland pride) that was occupying every chair at in that theater. Two seats over from me was a young kid, seven or eight years old, in a full-on T’Challa suit; in the 24 hours since I saw the movie, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the T’Challas (and Okoyes and Shuris) all over the country, stepping out into recess feeling like heroes. Justice, you’ve already seen it twice, right? What kind of differences did you notice in the two screenings—either in the crowd’s reception or in your own enjoyment?

Justice Namaste: The first screening I went to (second one is today!) was in Oakland on opening night. The only screening I’ve been in that nearly matched the energy in the theater during Black Panther was during the opening weekend of Get Out, when one of my friends actually fell out of their chair during the pivotal scene.

Visually, no other Marvel movie has ever come close to Black Panther—the lush Wakandan landscapes, the vibrantly colored costumes, even the wearable tech was beautiful. And that moment where the Royal Talon Fighter dips below the veil and we get an aerial look over the Golden City? Jawdropping.

But even with all this to mull over, when I left the theater, what was left ringing in my ears was Erik Killmonger’s last words: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.” In my opinion, the driving relationship in the film was that between T’Challa and Killmonger. (Or, thought of another way, the one between T’Chaka and N’Jobu, but realized through their sons.) T’Challa and Killmonger didn’t spend much time together on screen when they weren’t trying to murder each other—their lack of real dialogue was one of the movie’s more disappointing choices—so the tension between them was largely ideological, but it still drove the story. The “son reckoning with his father’s legacy” trope is a staple of the MCU, but it’s a limited one. Using a villain like Killmonger to complicate the idea of what heroism actually looks like, though? That’s a much more fascinating story.

Phuc Pham: As much as I enjoyed watching T’Challa grapple with both his opponents and his emotional demons, I couldn’t shake the sense that his heroic arc was a copy-paste of the superhero’s journey that Marvel has come to rely on. I mean, this is the fourth guy that has had a plot twist regarding his father upend his world.

Killmonger, on the other hand, was much more interesting to me. While T’Challa does his whole superhero thing, his archenemy points to actual systemic oppression, grounding Marvel’s universe in the real world in a way that feels new and bold. His motivation, essentially, is black liberation the world over—which to me qualified as the biggest heroic endeavor in the film. (At least until you realize that the means to achieve that end are vibranium weapons and a high body count.) Like you, Justice, I wish T’Challa and Killmonger had spent more screen time hashing out their ideological differences. The scenes when they engage in ritual combat are visceral—no Black Panther powers allowed!—but also seemed like wasted opportunities for some fight chatter about how best to rule Wakanda as well as improve the lives of the African diaspora.

Watercutter: Totally. I also wanted Killmonger and T’Challa to have more time to actually talk about their differences. Because, unlike almost every other Marvel villain before, Killmonger didn’t just want to rule to be a ruler. He wanted liberation, and in that he and T’Challa weren’t too far apart—they just had different ideas of how to achieve it. In that final scene that Justice mentioned, I truly didn’t want Killmonger to go. I wanted him to join T’Challa and stay in Wakanda. That, to Jason’s point, doesn’t happen often in these films. Maybe it happened a bit with Loki, but he’s always been a character with many allegiances. (And yes, Peter, I remember that Comic-Con Hall H panel—I’ve never felt anything like that a SDCC, and doubt I ever will again.)

Jason, in your great review last week you talked about how Black Panther showed what a superhero movie could do. What do you think it demonstrated in how it portrayed both its heroes and villains?

Parham: I didn’t think Michael B. Jordan’s acting was particularly strong, but I do agree that Killmonger as a character was perhaps the film’s most compelling—because he really wasn’t your typical antihero. I think Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker was correct in that the real villain was history itself. Killmonger’s rage was merely a product of the times, and all the despair he’d seen firsthand around the world. That’s a heavy burden to reckon with, but not an untrue one. In doing this, Coogler positioned the film in a really smart way, giving it historical currency but also contemporary heft, and all without feeling like he was trying to make some obvious political statement.

One of the more brilliant aspects of the movie—a credit to Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s fine script—was its insistence on complicating character arcs, especially with people like W’Kabi and M’Baku, who expertly straddled the line between good and bad. Then there’s someone like Okoye, who is fiercely loyal to Wakanda in every regard. Her inner confliction felt so palpable—being forced to serve an unfit king and wage war against her lover (Danai Gurira’s Okoye was maybe my favorite character, along with Shuri and M’Baku). Everyone felt like they were doing what was best for Wakanda, which you can’t really fault them for. It felt like a truer reflection of what it means to be alive in the world today. Black Panther succeeds on so many levels. I’m curious: what did everybody think were some of the stronger aspects of the film?

Namaste: This is the obvious answer, but I just have to say it—the women. The strongest part of the film was undoubtedly all of the women characters. And that extends to the women behind the scenes as well. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, Angela Bassett’s Ramonda, Letitia Wright’s Shuri (and of course Okoye and the rest of the Dora Milaje) were complex characters whose identities and motivations did not revolve solely around men. The audience saw Okoye as both a warrior and a lover, Nakia as an undercover spy who’s more concerned with protecting human rights than gathering intelligence, and Shuri as a younger (and better?) Tony Stark.

Not to mention the fact that their actions and beliefs are key to driving the story forward. Nakia is the first character who really pushes T’Challa to consider what Wakanda’s responsibility is to oppressed people across the rest of the world. And T’Challa would likely be dead 10 times over without Shuri’s engineering brilliance. Speaking of which, I’ve seen Letitia Wright being called the breakout star of the film, a title she most certainly deserves. As Shuri, she delivers some of the funniest lines, while also masterfully navigating a series of tense and heart-wrenching moments. Sure, T’Challa might be the Black Panther, but these women are far from secondary characters.

Pham: I’m so glad the writers decided to adapt Nakia and the Dora Milaje away from the ways they’re set up in some of the older comic book runs, where Nakia has an unrequited crush on T’Challa and the Dora Milaje—in addition to their role as royal guards—are a pool of potential queens. So extra kudos to film-Nakia for asserting she doesn’t want to be a Dora.

There hasn’t been an MCU film that’s as focused on technology since the Iron Man trilogy, and I was struck by how hopeful Black Panther, both the movie and the character, are how a future shaped by it doesn’t have to be dark and bleak. Production designer Hannah Beachler has said how Blade Runner inspired her vision of Wakanda’s capital Birnin Zana, and it shows. The dense urban landscape, replete with pristine skyscrapers and dusty merchant stalls, certainly hearken to traditional cyberpunk environments. Here, though, Afrofuturism shines figuratively and literally. Wakanda forgoes the dim and damp settings of futuristic cities (why are the streets always slicked with rain?) for a warm glow that almost makes you root for Killmonger’s vision of an empire upon which the sun never sets.

Thematically, the film also bucks the trend of Marvel movies in which new technology always begets catastrophe. Tony Stark’s bleeding-edge armaments always seem to end up in the hands of terrorists while Chitauri tech enables a middle-aged megalomaniac to hunt high schoolers in his spare time. Meanwhile, T’Challa not only prevents vibranium from being weaponized but also closes the film with plans to open a Wakandan outpost in Oakland—a city adjacent to Silicon Valley wealth yet wracked by a 20 percent poverty rate—to share and exchange knowledge. In an age when technology is often abused for nefarious and disruptive ends, the Black Panther’s techno-optimism seems to be a call for fewer divisions, not more.

Rubin: The rest of you have already ticked off just about everything that made this movie so appealing, so in hopes of adding something new to the mix, I’ll close with the idea that Black Panther created an entirely new lane for the MCU. After all 4,000 characters band together to (presumably) defeat Thanos in the two Avengers: Infinity War movies, Marvel is going to need a way to move forward, and Wakanda’s entry onto the global geopolitical stage is one of those ways. The MCU has its cosmic arm, its street-level arm, its mystical arm—and now Wakanda links the political intrigue of the Captain America movies with the deeply personal stories of a fully-fleshed world.

Does that mean we’ll see a Dora Milaje prequel movie in 2021? An M’Baku standalone? Only time will tell, but with a roster of new characters, ready-made internal conflict, and a rising cadre of filmmakers who are ready and able to tell these stories, the MCU’s prospects as a long-range paracosm have never been better.

Alaska Airlines Is Offering a Little-Known, Stunningly Caring Perk (Not Just In Business Class)

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

We’re living in peculiar times when airlines seem to be taking away more than they’re offering.

Sometimes, though, thoughtful people lurk within airline managements. 

Their cogitations can bring fruit.

In Alaska Airlines’ case, that fruit is the grape. 

Or, rather, the result of the grape’s manipulation.

The airline has a program called Wines Fly Free

Created in 2007, the idea was to allow Mileage Plan members to check their wine purchases for free, as they drifted back from Sonoma to their homes in places far less attractive than Sonoma.

Regulations, you see, made it arduous and expensive for smaller wineries to dispatch wine to grateful customers.

It seems that many Alaska customers were grateful for its viticultural appreciation and foresight. 

Now, Alaska is expanding the program from 11 to 29 airports, all toward the west of the U.S. These include smaller airports like Bellingham in Washington state.

The program allows you to check one whole case of wine — suitably packed for shipping, of course — for free to any U.S. destination.

Which is marvelously timed for February 18.

This happens to be National Wine Day.

I thought National Wine Day was every day. (Disclosure: I’m a Wine Ambassador for Honig Winery in Napa.)

Alaska, though, decided to celebrate this even further.

On this very February 18, the airline is even giving passengers — those who are old enough, of course — a free glass wine on certain flights.

This is rare civilization.

It might even serve as inspiration.

You can now choose to save money on fares by flying Economy Class.

If you’re you’re a Mileage Plan member, you can fly to some fine wine region, spend some of the money you’ve saved on the gracious grape infusion and not worry about how much it will cost to get onto the plane.

You could choose Dry Creek, Russian River, Napa, Anderson Valley or Paso Robles.

To name just a few of my favorite Californian wine regions.

Surely more airlines should consider such perks to life the spirits of their customers.

Of course, one way would be to abolish baggage fees altogether.

No, I haven’t had a drink today at all.