The Bathrooms on American Airlines' New Cramped Planes Are 'The Most Miserable Experience In the World,' says a Pilot

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

Some say American Airlines is going down the toilet.

Oh, not because it’s not making enough money. 

Instead, too many people are severely disliking the bathrooms on the airline’s new Boeing 737 MAX planes.

I’ve written before how Flight Attendants have complained about these planes, which have even more seats than ever. And about how the airline’s CEO Doug Parker admitted he’s never flown on the plane.

Because, why would he?

Now it’s the pilots’ turn to explain just how awful the plane’s new configuration — one that will be extended to many other types of American’s aircraft — truly is.

As View From the Wing reports, employees were having a little open exchange of views with the airline President, Robert Isom.

He has, American told me, flown on the plane.

Still, one pilot tried to explain to him just how bad those bathrooms are.

“It’s the most miserable experience in the world,” he said.

The data is simple. There are 12 more seats, only two bathrooms at the back for 160 passengers.

Oh, and those bathrooms are 75 percent the size they used to be.

“I can’t turn around in it. The sink is the most miserable thing going, and you cram those people in those little tiny seats you just bragged about to the point that I can’t sit back there,” he said.

He added that he’d refuse to sit in the back of this plane if he was asked by the airline to fly in it.

Isom contended that removing the seat-back screens (which saves money) and inserting larger overhead bins “are different and allow us to serve customers in a way that we haven’t before.”

Yes, the passengers certainly haven’t seen toilets like this before either.

I’ve not heard one person praise these loos or, frankly, the Economy Class seats that surely try patience when you’re in them for five hours or more. 

The question is whether the airline will do something about any of it. 

My guess is no, but I did contact the airline to see how it feels after this pilot’s withering criticism. It referred me to Isom’s words, in which he said that nothing is permanent. (Although Parker insists American will always make a profit.)

Isom also explained that it’s all the passengers’ fault.

“Today there is a real drive within the industry and with the traveling public to want to have really at the end of the day low cost seats. And we’ve got to be cognizant of what’s out there in the marketplace and what people want to pay,” he said. 

The Economy Class seat space on these planes has been reduced to a 30-inch pitch.

Perhaps, though, that’s American’s secret psychology.

You’ll be cramped in the seats — American insists it still feels like 31 inches because the seats are thinner.

But they’ll feel like heaven if you go to the toilet first.

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.

America's Iconic Beach Hotel Rings In Its 130th Year In Style

“Iconic” is a word thrown around so much it can become meaningless, but it fits the legendary

seaside resort, Hotel del Coronado, which is celebrating its 130th anniversary this year, like a glove. Set near San Diego on one of America’s most picturesque beaches, the Del has made and been the site of its fair share of history, with a guestbook second to none that dates back to 1888.

A few snapshots: L. Frank Baum writing three of his Oz novels when in residence here at the beginning of the 20th century. Charlie Chaplin playing polo in the 20s. Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon romping throughout the property in the Hollywood classic “Some Like it Hot” in 1959. Royalty (both actual, like King Edward, and de facto such as Walt Disney and Katherine Hepburn), who visited and were treated as such, as well as many American presidents.

Beyond its famous guestbook, The Del is a living legend, a backdrop for creating a grand American beach vacation for the families and travelers from all around the world who flock to California specifically to visit this jaw-dropping property.  

As the property rings in its 130th birthday in 2018, the celebrations are gearing up, with the hotel putting on a year of events, some that highlight the culinary side of this hospitality landmark, some that revel in the sheer beachiness of the location, and some that shine a spotlight on both. (In this hybrid category, the summer season will shine with a beachside Summer Clambake Series, with renowned guest chefs from California and Baja who will join Executive Chef Stefan Peroutka for their take on the California Clambake.)

Add to that Father’s Day concerts, San Diego Pride, Beach Polo, a Chef Throwdown, and a “Hallo-Wine + Spirits” party (among other events), 2018 is a particularly sunny opportunity to visit America’s beloved hotel-and, while you’re there, to wish it a happy 130th.

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

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.

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

Elon Musk Is Leaving the Board of an AI Safety Group He Co-Founded

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been described as an artificial intelligence alarmist even as the tech billionaire invested in AI research. Now, Musk is leaving the board of a non-profit AI research company he co-founded in 2015 due to potential conflicts with his ongoing work at Tesla.

The research group, OpenAI, said in a blog post this week that Musk will leave its board in order to avoid any conflicts with his work at Tesla and its AI-supported autonomous driving technology. “As Tesla continues to become more focused on AI, this will eliminate a potential future conflict for Elon,” OpenAI said in the blog post. Musk will remain an advisor to the group and he will continue to donate to OpenAI’s research efforts.

Over the past couple of years, OpenAI has worked to develop applications of AI in fields such as robotics and gaming, among others. Its goal is to independently research artificial intelligence “in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return,” the group said in 2015.

At the same time, Musk’s Tesla continues to push deeper into the world of AI research itself as it develops machine learning technology for autonomous vehicles. He has also been vocal about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence—even describing AI as “the greatest risk we face as a civilization” while engaging in a war of words with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over their disagreement on the subject. Among Musk’s concerns regarding AI are the idea that artificial intelligence could become dangerous if it evolves past the point of human intelligence, and that unregulated AI could potentially be used to start global conflicts by “manipulating information.”

Musk created OpenAI with technology executives and investors including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Jessica Livingston, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. With additional support from corporate backers such as Amazon and Infosys, the group formed with over $1 billion in donations.

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OpenAI also announced a group of new donors this week, including former Olympic athletes Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton as well as Skype founder Jaan Tallinn.

Sessions forms U.S. cyber task force after election warnings

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday announced he would create a task force to examine how his Justice Department can better combat global cyber threats, including efforts to interfere with elections or damage critical infrastructure.

Last week, leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Russia will try to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections in November and said the United States was “under attack.”

The Justice Department will have until the end of June to report its findings, according to a memorandum Sessions signed on Friday but released on Tuesday.

“The internet has given us amazing new tools that help us work, communicate, and participate in our economy, but these tools can also be exploited by criminals, terrorists, and enemy governments,” Sessions said in a statement.

The task force, composed of representatives from different branches of the Justice Department, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will examine use of the internet to spread violent ideologies and recruit followers, how hackers breach private corporate and government data, and law enforcement challenges posed by strong encryption.

Some security experts expressed skepticism about the task force, saying it lacked focus or a clear mission purpose.

“This step basically takes a number of really complicated parallel issues in ‘hard’ cybersecurity and ‘soft’ information security and throws them into the same amorphous task force,” said Graham Brookie, a cyber security aide in the Obama administration who now works at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council think tank.

U.S. intelligence officials have said Russia believes it successfully undermined U.S. democracy in the 2016 presidential election and would try again.

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller last week charged several Russians with conducting a criminal and espionage conspiracy through social media by boosting Republican Donald Trump and denigrating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Russia has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Trump has repeatedly dismissed the Russian cyber threat, and called Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between his campaign and Moscow a “witch hunt.”

Sessions, who recused himself from overseeing the Mueller probe after failing to disclose meetings with Russian officials, said last October “probably not” when asked by a U.S. senator if enough was being done to tackle Russian interference.

Reporting by Dustin Volz and Eric Walsh; editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker