Numlock News: June 30, 2020 • Ransom, Octopus, Fake Gold

By Walt Hickey

Ransom

The University of California, San Francisco was the victim of a punishing ransomware attack on June 1, but what makes this different from most is a reporter got a front row seat to the tense negotiations that happened in a darkweb livechat subsequently as administrators sought to recover control of their system. First, the hackers demanded $3 million, at which point the rep from UCSF — who may have been an outside specialist brought in to work the negotiation — countered with $780,000. After a day of back and forth, UCSF said it had scrounged together $1.02 million, but the hackers were holding firm, refusing to go a buck under $1.5 million. The University then rifled through enough couch cushions to come up with $1,140,895, which was accepted and led to a transfer of 116.4 bitcoin in exchange for decryption software. The University has since reminded onlookers, like the BBC, that not all the stuff said in a negotiation with a secretive global hacker network should be taken at face value.

Joe Tidy, BBC News

Octopus

It’s a nautical enigma that has beguiled humankind as long as they have gazed beneath the wave: how deep can an octopus go? Seriously, how deep do they go? The occasional sea trawler with a net 5,000 meters down will sometimes pull up an octopus egg case, which certainly is some provocative food for thought when it comes to the domain of the cephalopods but not precisely an answer. The best answer we had was a 1971 black and white photograph of an octopus at 5,100 meters deep, which is neat but also a kilometer short of what’s known as the hadal zone, which extends from 6,000 meters down to 11,000 meters down. That was the best answer, until April 2019. That’s when the Five Deeps Expedition caught two octopuses on video, one at 5,760 meters, one at 6,957 meters down, in the Java Trench in Indonesia. This finding means that octopus can live in 99 percent of the world’s seafloors, up from the previous estimate of 75 percent.

Chris Baraniuk, Hakai Magazine

Mailers

On one hand, the bad news is that the economy has been hit with an injection of uncertainty that threatens the way many companies evaluate risk and carry out business. On the other hand, the good news is that the companies that inundate people with spam mailers about offers of credit are deeply screwed right now. In January, 331 million credit card offers and 211 million personal loan offers were mailed to people’s houses, and then in most cases immediately discarded. In May, those figures were down to a downright delightful 74 million credit card offers and 84 million personal loan spam mailers. The reason? Companies that evaluate the risk of loaning money to consumers are completely out of reliable information about creditworthiness, as major economic shifts made reliable payers in January into risky bets in June.

AnnaMaria Andriotis, The Wall Street Journal

For Men

CVS, the largest drugstore chain in the U.S., announced it will begin to carry a cosmetics line from Stryx, which you know by the absence of vowels and hard consonant sounds is a consumer brand intended for men. Younger men are considerably more amenable to the use of makeup, one reason being the sheer amount of time younger generations spend in front of a camera for socialization and the other being that it makes you look rad and everyone should do it. The market for male cosmetics rose 13 percent over the past five years, though it is actually anticipated to shrink 1 percent in 2020 due to an evaporation in demand for razors.

Gerald Porter Jr., Bloomberg

Fool’s Gold

At least 19 Chinese financial institutions are in deep crap over some Looney Tunes-tier deception from the likes of Wuhan Kingold Jewelry Inc, which is a Nasdaq-listed company and the largest privately-owned gold processor in Hubei. Those firms lent Kingold 20 billion yuan, the equivalent of $2.8 billion, over the past five years, backed by 83 tons of gold bars used as collateral. Well, some of those were not in fact gold bars but rather copper bars that had been gilded, and the lenders are on the hook for 16 billion yuan of loans against the fake gold. The “83 tons of gold” would be the equivalent of 4.2 percent of China’s gold reserves, or 22 percent of the annual gold production of China.

Wu Yujian, Wu Hongyuran, Bai Yujie and Han Wei, Caixin

Oxygen

The sun is of significant interest to astronomers because it’s really the only star we’re able to study in-depth due to its somewhat notorious proximity to earth. A key question that remains unsettled: what is the sun made of? We know the gist is “a lotta hydrogen, bunch of helium, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon to taste, sprinkles of all the other junk” but apparently that’s not in-depth enough to run with. In 1989, the measurement was 1,175 hydrogen atoms for each oxygen atom, but in 2009, a measurement estimated 2,042 hydrogen atoms for each oxygen atom. Simple tweaks like this can have really significant impacts on our broader understanding of the abundance of different elements in the universe; the newer calculation would reduce the estimated oxygen in the universe by 42 percent, carbon by 26 percent, and nitrogen by 40 percent.

Ken Croswell, Knowable Magazine

Sin Tax

Government tax receipts are pretty much down across the board, given the — you know — general situation of stuff right about now. There is one glimmer of green in this sea of red ink, though: sin taxes, the taxes that governments toss on to cigarettes, alcohol, gasoline and other vices. In Michigan, tax collections are down in every single category except smokes, which saw tobacco tax receipts up 1.6 percent to $73 million in May, and up 0.1 percent year to date. Those taxes account for 4.5 percent of state tax collections in Michigan, so the power of cigarettes to maintain robust sales in a respiratory pandemic is, perversely, fairly welcome news for state bookkeepers. It’s not just tobacco, either: take Colorado, where liquor taxes rose from $3.4 million in February to $4.4 million in March. All of us need to do our part.

Elaine S. Povich, Stateline

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