Numlock News: December 20, 2019 • Sugar, Podcasts, Robocalls

By Walt Hickey

Have a great weekend!

Ebola

The FDA has approved an Ebola vaccine, following a similar approval from the European Commission in November, and making it the first-ever approved Ebola vaccination in the United States. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance announced plans to accumulate a 500,000-dose stockpile for worldwide emergencies, and the United States is also expected to be one of many countries that stockpiles the vaccine as a bioterrorism defense. Merck, the developer of the drug, will qualify for a tropical disease priority review voucher, which is basically good for one fast-tracked FDA review of a future drug or vaccine, an incentive that was created to kick off development of treatments for neglected, underfunded diseases. They can be sold, too: In December, a priority review voucher was sold by Bavarian Nordic for $95 million, should Merck prefer to cash it in.

Helen Branswell, Stat News

Man vs. Robot

The Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act was passed in the Senate unanimously on Thursday, which given its overwhelming passage in the U.S. House of Representatives in November means that soon Americans will have some degree of relief from interminable spam calls. Once signed into law, the FCC will be able to fine robocallers up to $10,000 per call, and major carriers will be required to roll out new tech that will help consumers know they’re getting a call from a bogus number.

Makena Kelly, The Verge

Railroads

Virginia will purchase 225 miles of track from commercial railroad CSX and make some new improvements to the tune of $3.7 billion. This will allow Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express trains to serve the area between Richmond and D.C. on an hourly basis, a major expansion of service that most significantly avoids the need for a pricey highway expansion. The move would effectively extend Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor by 100 miles, and funding for it will include about $944 million from the national rail service. That $3.7 billion won’t require new taxes, and is vastly cheaper than the $12 billion it was estimated to cost to add a lane to I-95 between Fredericksburg and D.C.

Max Smith, WTOP

Jobs

Taurus Holdings is a Brazilian firearms manufacturer that, following two decades of wooing, was persuaded to move operations to the 12,000-person town of Bainbridge, Georgia. In exchange, they’ll get $39 million from taxpayers, including $20 million from local governments for construction, $7.9 million in tax credits, $4.5 million in infrastructure work, $4.3 million in property tax abatements, $3 million for equipment, and 73 acres of land for a lease of $1 per year, which they will own after 20 years. Generally speaking, an incentive package of $50,000 per new job is considered a fair trade by those who follow such subsidies; however, the Georgia deal is for merely 300 jobs, so $130,000 per job.

Polly Mosendz and Caleb Melby, Bloomberg

Recognition

A National Institute of Standards and Technology study analyzed how well 189 different software algorithms by 99 different developers performed when it came to correctly identifying individuals based on facial recognition, specifically how well they performed on non-white people. The answer? Really bad! They conducted two kinds of tests: first, can it confirm that a photo matches another photo of the same person, and second, can it determine whether a person in a photo has any match in a database. The researchers used 18.27 million images of 8.49 million people to find out how well the algorithms did for non-white people and found that the false positive rate for Asian and African American faces was anywhere from 10 to 100 times higher compared to Caucasian people.

Patrick Grother, Mei Ngan and Kayee Hanaoka, NIST

Podcast

Data from Edison Research and Triton Digital illustrate just how dominant podcasts have become in a short time. In 2016, 18 percent of Americans listened to podcasts at least monthly, a figure that in 2019 rose to 27 percent and by 2024 is projected to hit 38 percent. Today, there are 90 million monthly podcast listeners, up from 58 million in 2016. In many ways this was a year when the medium was dragged even further into the mainstream: as of August 2019, there were 27 venture capital deals in the podcast space, and Spotify threw down $400 million on podcast acquisitions. Thanks to their first-mover advantage, Apple dominates: as of February, 62.9 percent of podcast listeners use Apple Podcasts, while 9.5 percent use Spotify and the remaining 27.5 percent of users are scattered to the winds across any number of other apps. I’m in the top 2 percent of users, the ones who pay for Stitcher.

Kevin Tran, Variety

Sugar

Thanks to crappy weather, sugar prices are poised to pop 25 percent to 30 percent above the average levels of 35 cents per pound. The cane crop in Louisiana and beet crop in Minnesota and North Dakota are in tough shape, and that means that the U.S. will be buying up basically all of Mexico’s available surplus. Sugar was at a 8.28 million metric ton haul as of December 10, down 8 percent from last season and driving prices up 2.5 percent.

Marvin G Perez, Bloomberg

Dams

Following a dam disaster in Brazil that killed over 240 people, the Church of England demanded data from mining companies it invested in to disclose the state of their tailings dams. That’s the earthworks that are used to hold mining waste, and of the 726 mining companies queried over half declined to respond. That’s concerning because the mining companies that did respond paint a tenuous picture: looking at 89 of those mining companies, they have 1,700 dams holding mine waste worldwide, of which 687 are classified as high risk.

Moira Warburton, Sam Hart, Júlia Ledur, Ernest Scheyder and Ally J. Levine, Reuters

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