Numlock News: June 15, 2020 • Heist, Oscars, Anime

By Walt Hickey

Welcome back!


A shipment of billions of riyals being transferred from the printer to a central bank was boosted by a rebel group in Yemen. They were being sent from Russia, where they were printed, to Yemen’s central bank in Aden when seized by forces loyal to the Southern Transitional Council, a separatist group that in April declared self-rule. The convoy was moving 64 billion riyals in crisp banknotes and diverted by the rebels to a military base that government officials described as piracy. That’s roughly the equivalent of $250 million USD. Complicating matters further, the government and STC are allies in a war against the Houthi movement, though the agreement signed last year has not really been implemented on the ground.

Mohammed Mokhashef, Reuters


China’s Tencent is voracious for intellectual property upon which to base its games, and is courting Japan’s entertainment juggernauts to fuel demand for works they can spin off into lucrative mobile games. The total game revenue in China is 73.2 billion yuan, and games based on Japanese anime and comics account for 7.6 billion yuan of that, or more than a tenth. The goal is to get multimedia game franchises up and running without doing all the work of spending decades developing characters and franchises people like, given that 73 of the top 100 grossing mobile games in China were based on pre-existing IP.

Takashi Mochizuki and Zheping Huang, Bloomberg

Eat Your Veggies

While runs on meat have been dominating many headlines, it’s been a banner year for produce sales in supermarkets as well. Year to date, fresh produce sales are up 10.4 percent over the same period of 2019, and frozen fruit and vegetable sales are up 28.8 percent. This would make sense, as a decline in vegetables eaten at restaurants would hopefully translate to a similar increase in vegetables eaten at home. Overall, the supermarket business in the U.S. has sold an additional $2.7 billion in fresh produce this year since the beginning of the year, a total of 944 million additional pounds.

Anne-Marie Roerink, Winsight Grocery Business


Researchers were able to use a telescope, a laptop, and an electro-optical sensor to spy on a conversation taking place 80 feet away. They were able to do this by observing vibrations created by sounds on the glass surface of a light bulb dangling from a ceiling, enough to discern a conversation or recognize a piece of music after passing it through a filter and reconstructing the recordings. The fidelity was good enough that Shazam could recognize “Let It Be” by the Beatles. The music was a bit louder than conversation, and the dangling bulb was great for acoustics, but in reality the setup may not make much difference given the proof-of-concept: LED bulbs may be easier to use the trick on, with a signal-to-noise ratio 6.3 times higher than an incandescent bulb and 70 times that of a fluorescent one.

Andy Greenberg, Wired


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group behind the Oscars, announced that starting in the 94th ceremony — the one commemorating the films of 2021 — there will be a flat 10 nominees for Best Picture, rather than the dynamic system they had put in place where anywhere from five to 10 films would get the nod depending on the threshold they passed in the nominating vote. An analysis from earlier this year (that I did!) found that given the ranked-choice voting style the Academy uses for Best Picture, the larger the field of nominees, the less of an edge that the perceived Oscar front-runner has. So, while their motivations for expanding the field were not explained, the effect may nevertheless be a more unpredictable race. Monday the Academy board will meet, when it is expected to announce an extension of the eligibility period for the 2020 Oscars and a possible delay to the planned Feb. 28, 2021 ceremony.

Marc Malkin, Variety and Scott Feinberg, The Hollywood Reporter


Sore Losers

NASCAR announced a ban on the Confederate flag at its events, which, jeez, really, you really had to get that one in writing to make it happen? Rough. Turns out the battle flag of the most notorious losing side in American history was sufficiently popular at NASCAR events to merit a ban, and a new poll of NASCAR fans finds most are piqued at this latest failure for the Confederacy. A Morning Consult poll of 624 self-described NASCAR fans found 30 percent backed the ban, and 44 percent thought fans should be allowed to display the Confederate flag at events. Given that like 96 percent of participants in a NASCAR race will fail and lose the NASCAR race, I guess I kind of understand the link to the Confederacy. Nevertheless, the presence of the racist symbol is thoroughly unnecessary about 150 years after the question was settled. Encouragingly, younger fans of the sport backed the ban, but discouragingly, not as much as you’d think, with 39 percent of those age 44 and younger backing the ban and 34 percent preferring the flags allowed. Just 12 percent of NASCAR fans are under the age of 29, and 84 percent are white.

Alex Silverman, Morning Consult


Deepfakes are algorithmically-generated fake videos, digital puppetry that allows people to create fake videos of people doing things they did not do. There are lots of reasons to want a way to detect such Franken-videos — there’s reason to fear unethical applications of the tech in everything from the political to the pornographic — but the reality is even the best AI isn’t really that great at it. Facebook wants to rely on AI to clean up deepfakes on its platform, so it released 100,000 clips featuring 3,426 actors and a range of techniques to try to get an answer. The Deepfake Detection Challenge it organized illustrates just how hard the problem is: 2,114 participants submitted 35,000 models to detect deepfakes. The best one had a 65 percent accuracy rate when tested on a set of 10,000 new clips, which is not confidence-inspiring.

Will Douglas Heaven, MIT Technology Review

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