Numlock News: September 23, 2020 • Bears, Airplane, Moon

By Walt Hickey

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Debits

In 2018, a bank going by Choice Bank in Belize went under, which is not exactly the kind of financial tremble that shows up on the global financial Richter scale. The problem was that the bank was the home to deposits on prepaid debit cards used around the world by a U.S.-based company called Payoneer. Their funds were among the $100 million in uninsured deposits totaling, meaning that amounts loaded onto such cards evaporated without any notice to the holders, many of whom had no clue they were even banking with the Belizean entity. Prepaid cards are used by millions globally — many of whom are without access to credit or banking resources, or who get paid with them, or who need to move money to family across borders — and total prepaid debit card spending exceeded $7 trillion in 2018.

Gretchen Morgenson and Kit Ramgopal, NBC News

Trackers

An analysis of 80,000 websites with a new tool called Blacklight found that third-party trackers are incredibly common, with any third party tracker appearing on 69,293 of the sites, a Google tracker appearing on 59,316 of the sites, and a Facebook tracker appearing on 25,981 of the sites. About 12,000 of the sites loaded scripts that recorded every user interaction on a page — session recording — and 5,000 were using tech to “fingerprint” users, allowing them to be identified even if they blocked cookies. This data is sent to third-party data brokers, even if it’s collected on medical sites, banking sites, sites for at-risk groups, government websites, and more.

Aaron Sankin and Surya Mattu, The Markup

Bears

This was a rough year for berries and salmon in Alaska, which means bears are going to cities to eat trash to stock up for winter. This year, the Juneau Police Department and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have fielded 687 calls concerning 13 different bears, double the number of bears compared to last year. Of those 13, four were moved and nine were killed due to risks posed to lives or property. Part of this is that the citizens of Juneau seem to have grown complacent: just 1,500 of 8,000 residential customers have bear resistant trash cans.

Matt Miller, KTOO

Lactose

Cow milk’s position has been diminishing, as the amount of milk consumed in liquid form dips and the amount of nut- or plant-based simulations rises in popularity. Lots of this is simple digestion: just 29 percent of the world’s adults can absorb lactose, and even self-diagnosed lactose intolerance or avoidance of milk is on the rise. Cheese, butter, yogurt and other milk-based solids are performing better, but the liquid stuff is facing stiff headwinds, and there’s a case for milk processors to diversify into plant-based dairy, given its higher profit margins and rising market share: 17 percent of the milk and alternatives market by retail sales volume is alt-milks.

David Fickling, Bloomberg

Battery

The “learning rate” as defined by economists is the percentage decrease in cost-per-unit over the course of a doubling in output. For batteries, this is 18 percent, meaning that every time global battery output doubles, we’d anticipate that it gets 18 percent cheaper to crank one out. This has been one of the most important trends in the past decade, as battery capacity allows for greater adaptation of renewable technology and more batteries mean that they get cheaper, and cheaper batteries mean they get more popular — a virtuous cycle we’re beginning to see pick up a head of steam. By 2023, the price per kilowatt-hour is projected to dip below $100, and by 2030 could get to $62 given that learning rate. As recently as 2010, that kilowatt-hour was over $1,160.

Timothy B. Lee, Ars Technica

Moon

Earth is projected to accumulate a new mini-moon, which is a term used to describe an asteroid that in the process of trying to pass by Earth gets hauled (usually briefly) into orbit for some time before, more often than not, carrying on its way. The new object is about to join Earth’s orbit in October and will continue to stick around until May 2021, so I assume it brought popcorn because that’s going to be a helluva stretch to be an observer. Scientists are actually skeptical it’s even an asteroid and suspect, rather, it is merely trash, specifically the discarded part of the Surveyor 2 rocket launched to the moon in 1966. It’s expected to get two close calls, passing at a distance of 50,000 kilometers in December and then another time at 220,000 kilometers in January 2021.

Aisha Zahid, Sky News

Flights

Out of the 30 largest airlines by revenue worldwide, only four had a profit in the second quarter of 2020: Korean Air Lines, Asiana Airlines, China Airlines and EVA Airways, all of which are based in South Korea or Taiwan and make a large chunk of their money from cargo services. Worldwide air cargo is projected to be a $111 billion business this year, and moving stuff has its advantages over moving people. Boxes certainly don’t hit message boards when you cut the size of a seat, and in a pandemic, air cargo is more necessary than ever since passenger revenue is projected to be $241 billion this year, an enormous cut from the initial $581 billion projection for 2020. For the four airlines that managed to be in the black in the worst quarter for the industry, cargo’s share of revenue is anywhere between 72 percent to 93 percent of the business now, up from about a third of their business last year. About 40 percent of air cargo had been moving in the holds of passenger planes, so when that dried up, cargo fleets were there to swoop in and save the day.

Eun-Young Jeong, The Wall Street Journal

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Numlock News: September 22, 2020 • Smugglers, Sailors, Cops

By Walt Hickey

Best of 2020

Chinese war epic The Eight Hundred has surpassed Bad Boys for Life to take the mantle of top-grossing film of 2020, pulling in a total gross of $423.2 million. Produced for $85 million, it had a troubled post-production but has been in theaters for a month with cinemas operating at 75 percent seating capacity. Contrast that performance with that of Mulan, which cost $200 million to make, but is now projected to finish its Chinese run with $41 million. Anyway, don’t forget that name, not like the movie is supposed to be particularly good or anything but if the record holds, “What was the top grossing film of 2020?” is going to be a gnarly movie bar trivia question in like a decade, like The Artist winning Best Picture or the existence of Roberto Benigni.

Patrick Brzeski, The Hollywood Reporter

Internet

Broadband speeds in the United States are up from March, with the average home internet speed in the U.S. running at 94.6 megabits per second compared to 84.9 megabits per second at the onset of the pandemic. Many home networks have been buckling under the need to operate multiple ongoing video calls at a given time, though ISPs have managed to function despite the upticks in internet traffic caused by working and learning from home.

Angus Loten, The Wall Street Journal

Facial Recognition

The Los Angeles Police Department repeatedly denied it had records related to facial recognition technology and on multiple occasions denied using the technology, providing vague information about its use of tech that purports to identify and track faces. New figures from the Los Angeles Times demonstrate that was misleading: the LAPD does not have its own facial recognition platform, but the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department does maintain a regional database that was accessed by LAPD officers 29,817 times between November 6, 2009 and September 11, 2020, with over 300 LAPD personnel accessing the software.

Kevin Rector and Richard Winton, The Los Angeles Times

Spies Like Us

Punishing individual apps like TikTok and WeChat for oversights in security distracts from the fundamental issue that plenty of applications leak like sieves, even if they’re merely hawking your data to the highest bidder rather than a rival geopolitical power. Rather than targeting problematic apps, privacy and security experts would rather target problematic data sharing policies which are rampant. A 2018 study analyzing data flows in and out of a million apps in the Google Play Store found the median application sent user data to five tracking companies, and 17 percent of apps sent data to more than 10 trackers, with 90 percent of apps sending data to a U.S. company and 5 percent sending data to a China-based one.

Graham Webster, MIT Technology Review

Sailors

Of the 1.6 million seafarers who work on ships transporting goods or fishing, nearly 20 percent are currently stranded at sea. Their contracts have ended — sometimes in breach of international maritime law — while countries will not let them disembark because of the pandemic, and conditions are deteriorating. The sailors, who are often from poorer countries, lack leverage over the global shipping conglomerates, operators, manning firms and complicated ownership structures that dominate the business of moving cargo. Despite some companies rerouting ships and chartering flights, there are still 300,000 seafarers overdue for relief, and that number rises every day.

K. Oanh Ha, Jack Wittels, Khine Lin Kyaw and Krystal Chia, Bloomberg

Ice

Arctic warming meant that the amount of ice covering the polar ocean in the summer of 2020 hit the second-lowest level seen in four decades, with satellites recording the sea ice minimum at 3.74 million square kilometers on September 15. According to the researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the only time it’s been lower across decades of observation was in 2012, when a late-season storm broke up lots of remaining ice and there were just 3.41 million square kilometers of ice on the pole. The dark water absorbs the sun’s radiation rather than reflecting it, as the ice is better at doing.

Cassandra Garrison and Natalie Thomas, Reuters

Gold

The year 2020 has been hard on lots of people, but spare a thought for [spins wheel] …illegal Indian gold smugglers. Huh, sure. Anyway, this year has apparently been just awful for people who illegally smuggle gold into India, with the illicit flow of gold projected to just 25 tons this year, down from 120 tons last year. Yes, the hardworking gold smuggler relies on international air travel to make their under-the-table and deeply illegal living, and as that conduit into the country — which is the second-biggest consumer of gold — has been grounded, the smugglers have been hard up to get the metal into the country, and reportedly have been forced to smuggle it overland through Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and over sea from Sri Lanka, the poor fellows. Last year, 17 percent of India’s annual demand of gold was smuggled into the country, which is information I wish more High School Guidance Counselors were forthcoming about because I was unaware smuggler was a genuinely viable career path anymore.

Swansey Afonso, Bloomberg

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Numlock News: September 21, 2020 • Malls, Mummies, Mulan

By Walt Hickey

Welcome back!

Reflection

In mainland China, Disney’s Mulan had a significant week two downturn at the box office pulling in a paltry $6.5 million, down from an already disappointing $23.2 million opening weekend. Disney also released the film in Hong Kong this weekend, but has declined to release sales figures there as a boycott of the film may have significantly diminished returns. Ahead of its intended release in March, the film was held up as the result of a decade on inroads the Mouse made in the Middle Kingdom, but following a tumultuous summer in China, the United States, and the world at large the state of those inroads is mysterious as the dark side of the moon.

Kelly Gilblom and Yueqi Yang, Bloomberg

Mummies

A total 27 sarcophagi have been unearthed in an ancient Egyptian necropolis because I guess, sure, why not, let’s do this. What’s the worst thing that can happen? The sarcophagi — discovered at a well at a sacred site in Saqqara, south of Cairo — are colorfully painted wooden coffins buried over 2,500 years ago. Thirteen coffins were discovered earlier this month — and, listen, at that point I probably would have seen enough and wrapped things up because I am capable of taking a hint — and then another 14 were discovered after because screw it, this is 2020 baby, if you want to desecrate a mummy’s tomb, may as well shoot for a couple dozen and see how it plays out.

BBC

Pangolins

A new report found law enforcement seizures of pangolin scales and meat hit a new high in 2019, with 128 tons of pangolin trophies intercepted last year, a 200 percent increase from the level five years ago. The creatures — which look like scaly anteaters — are the only mammals with scales, and over a million of them were trafficked from 2000 to 2014, with well-funded criminal syndicates fueling the trade with the primary customer being China for traditional medicine preparations.

Rachael Bale and Rachel Fobar, National Geographic

Commutes

In May, June, and August researchers surveyed 10,000 Americans aged 20 to 60 who earned over $20,000 in 2019 to find out how working from home was changing their routines. Based on the analysis, working from home accounts for about 52.3 percent of pandemic-era employment, about 10 times the fraction of 5.2 percent in the pre-pandemic economy. The aggregate impacts of this are breathtaking to behold: the total time Americans spent commuting to work dropped nationally 62.4 million hours per day, and aggregating that from mid-March to mid-September the national time savings was over 9 billion hours. On face, I had assumed all of this time was completely redirected into either Animal Crossing, making sourdough, or helplessly reading disturbing information on social media. This turns out to be only slightly wrong: while chores and leisure are up, the bulk — about 43.7 percent — of that time was just spent working even more on their primary or second job, which is oddly more depressing.

Jose Maria Barrero, Nick Bloom, and Steven J. Davis, Becker Friedman Institute

Mall

Mall vacancies are at an all time high, hitting a 9.8 percent vacancy rate as of early September, beating out the prior peak of 9.3 percent in 2011. The future of malls is very much in flux, and developers are recruiting new types of businesses — doctors offices, schools, storage facilities, dentists — to fill in the rapidly diminishing retail space and keep foot traffic up. Depending on how cheap rates get, one day a mall near you could be home to the Numlock Interactive Experience, where an extremely caffeinated man in a former RadioShack will ramble about MoviePass to you and occasionally ask for your email address.

Parija Kavilanz, CNN

Salaryman

Japanese companies like to recruit employees fresh out of school and then keep them for the rest of their lives. In 2018, 70 percent of open jobs went to new grads. About one out of every four workers in Japan has been at their job more than 20 years, a figure that in the States is only around one in 10. This means that companies cutting back on hiring in 2021 will be devastating for the careers of an entire graduating class, and possibly for the rest of their lives: the jobs-per-applicant ratio is lower than ever amid 122,000 fewer openings. When this same thing happened in the late 1990s, the effects were felt decades later: among that era’s college grads, 35 percent of men and 9.6 percent of women are yet to find full-time employment. This is prompting a push for more job mobility in the country.

Kazunori Takada and Shiho Takezawa, Bloomberg

Emmys

Last night was the Primetime Emmy Awards, and with a completely virtual ceremony, lots of the workers who rely on the award shows and live events business in Los Angleles were out of luck. An analysis of the 2012 Emmys found that there was $43 million in immediate benefits to Los Angeles County, which included $2 million in out of towners spending money, $9 million in limousines, wardrobe, and event tickets, and $2 million in receptions and parties. For the folks who drive those limousines, sew those wardrobes, and work the bar at those parties, the show may have gone on but without the positive economic effects such events can bring for an entire set of businesses.

Meredith Blake, The Los Angeles Times

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Numlock News: September 18, 2020 • Torts, Ports, Sports

By Walt Hickey

Have a great weekend!

East Coast

The axis of global shipping may be shifting as global trade disputes, local labor conditions and ascending production centers in southern Asia mean that lots of goods that used to enter the U.S. in West Coast ports now enter through East Coast ports. In 2017, the Port of New York and New Jersey had 30 ultra-large ships call in, which rose to 143 in 2019 and then year to date 2020, it’s up to 146 ships. Most Asian imports come into the States through the west coast, with L.A. alone moving 9.4 million containers compared to 7.5 million out of New York and New Jersey. The West handled 38 percent of seaborne imports in the U.S. so far this year, while the East Coast handled over half, a shift from 2006 when the West handled 47.6 percent and the East got 41.9 percent. Part of that is left coast competition from Vancouver and Prince Rupert in Canada for Asian cargo, as well as production shifts away from China to Southeast Asia and India, which allows container ships to cut across the Indian, Suez, Mediterranean and Atlantic to the East Coast rather than just the Pacific.

Costas Paris, The Wall Street Journal

NFL

Ratings for the three main events of the first week of NFL football was significantly down year over year, with the kickoff game Thursday down 2.8 million television viewers compared to 2019’s kickoff. Sunday Night Football was down 3.3 million, and Monday Night Football was down 2.3 million. Digital audiences were slightly up, but lots of the slip seems to be casual fans tuning out either due to increased cord cutting, additional competing options, or the pandemic just making stuff a big ball of weird right now.

Gavin Bridge, Variety

Well, Damn

When an oil and gas extraction company goes belly up, they can leave behind wells that will seep methane and other hydrocarbons into the atmosphere for decades to come, if not longer. In the past five years, 207 such businesses failed in the United States, leaving the states holding the bag in terms of plugging the wells, and 190 more companies could file for bankruptcy by 2022. There are 3.2 million deserted oil and gas wells in the United States and 29 million globally. Until very recently scientists did not incorporate those abandoned wells into their greenhouse gas estimates, but that turned out to be a mistake, as post-abandonment the wells are leaking some of the worst emissions possible. A study of 88 abandoned wells in Pennsylvania found 90 percent leaked methane, a measurement of 43 wells in Texas found significant leaks in 28, and in the U.K. researchers found methane emissions in 30 percent of 102 wells checked. Plugging a well — clearing it of any obstructions and then filling it with cement — can cost $20,000 to $145,000, and for a modern shale well the cost can hit $300,000. If companies see the red ink of filling a well exceeds the black gold coming out of it, they can just abandon it in bankruptcy, leaving taxpayers holding the bag and a massive legal mess in their methane-choked wake.

Mya Frazier, Bloomberg

Trees

I am the Lorax, and I speak for the trees, and they wanted to let you know they’re getting the heck out of here as quickly as possible, which is to say very slowly but nevertheless observably. According to the US Forest Service Northern Research Station, in the eastern United States over 70 percent of saplings from northern tree species are migrating northward. This does not mean that they’re literally migrating, just that changes in precipitation, rainfall and possibly temperatures is making the habitats for trees shift, and over the next several decades one way the flora of this country will adapt to shifting climates may entail their young spouting more north than expected. That all being said, you all read that thing about the abandoned oil wells, if this passive migration goes left and turns into a “last march of the Ents” situation I think we have got to get out of Isengard.

Anna Turns, The Guardian

Hospitals

From 1975 to 2018, the United States population grew by about 50 percent, but over the same period the number of hospitals decreased by 12 percent. Some of this was a shift to make hospitals leaner operations that were significantly more profitable and used the “just-in-time inventory” model of staffing nurses to optimize efficiency. Naturally, when a large overwhelming public health incident struck, those efficiencies left hospital administrators scrambling to get the resources for the swift uptick in need. It’s almost enough to make one wonder if perhaps for-profit systems are a non-ideal way to ensure public health and — no, that’s ridiculous, the only way to treat diseases well is coincidentally the exact way that maximizes shareholder value.

Russell Gold and Melanie Evans, The Wall Street Journal

Bikes

China had a massive bikeshare boom that led to quick consolidation and hundreds of bikeshare startups going under in 2017. Billions of dollars in investment capital became millions of bikes, and then when the bubble popped bikes became scrap metal. One government estimate puts the number of shared bikes in use in 2017 at 20 million, and then 60 of the companies went under and now just three large bike apps dominate the major markets. One company, Xiaoming, left 430,000 bikes across 10 cities when it failed. China Recycling has scrapped 4 million shared bikes since 2017, spending 10 million yuan a month buying up doomed bikes and cutting them down to raw materials.

Karoline Kan, Bloomberg News

Peptides

Investigators have tracked down the latest online home of peddlers hawking peptides — injectable drugs not approved by the FDA, some of which are classified as doping drugs by the World Anti-Doping Agency — on their murky sites. The website — called ‘Amazon’ by those ne’er-do-wells in the know — was host to at least 66 listings of peptides in August and September, according to an investigation from The Markup. Amazon bans the sale of injectable drugs on their platform, but with 3 million active third party sellers, policing every listing is difficult, if not impossible, so these slipped through by going as “research chemicals” under the Industrial and Scientific category. Amazon said it stopped 6 billion suspected bad listings last year alone.

Annie Gilbertson and Jon Keegan, The Markup

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Send links to me on Twitter at @WaltHickey or email me with numbers, tips, or feedback at walt@numlock.news. Send corrections or typos to the copy desk at copy@numlock.news.

Check out the Numlock Book Club and Numlock award season supplement.

2020 Sunday subscriber editions: One Billion Americans · Defector · Seams of the Grid · Bodies of Work · Working in Public · Rest of World · Worst Quarter ·Larger Than Life · Streaming · Wildlife Crime · Climate Solutions · Blue Skies ·

UV · Facial Recognition · Vaccine Development · The Pudding · Burmese Pythons · Comics Future · Comics History · Streaming · COBOL · Esoteric Political History ·
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