Numlock News: June 5, 2020 • Incognito, Pesticide, Mysterious Circles

By Walt Hickey

Have a great weekend, be safe.

Military Surplus

If you’re watching the news thinking that everything escalated fairly quickly, the reason many U.S. streets look like a warzone is the U.S. Department of Defense has been steadily shipping items first intended for warzones out to law enforcement agencies around the country. Since first authorized in the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, the Pentagon has been passing along excess equipment to local cops for the cost of shipping alone, with $7.4 billion worth of military property being handed over to 8,000 law enforcement agencies since then, ranging from the ordinary to rifles, armored vehicles, and other Punisher cosplay items. Oversight is lax — a 2017 sting operation found a made-up law enforcement group was able to score $1.2 million worth of controlled items like night vision goggles and pipe bomb materials within a week. The program was all well and good for the balance sheet of the military, but the results two decades on are a drastic asymmetry between peaceful protesters and police.

Brian Barrett, Wired

Incognito

A federal lawsuit against Google seeks $5 billion and accuses the company of continuing to collect information about what people view online when in Incognito mode. The complaint says Google continues to gather data on users about what they view when using the private browsing mode, which is most commonly used when people want to buy a secret birthday present for someone who also uses the shared computer. The complaint further alleges that Google would gain access to information about the “most intimate and potentially embarrassing things” a person searches for online, which I assume refers to anime. The suit seeks $5,000 of damages per user for violating federal wiretapping and California privacy laws. Google says they’ll vigorously defend themselves and that they clearly state websites can still collect your data in Incognito mode.

Jonathan Stempel, Reuters

Sea Mystery

On May 31, five ships off the coast of Cape Town began mysteriously sailing in circles. This effect had been seen before, especially near oil terminals and government facilities, and researchers who monitor the effect when it happens near China’s coast think it’s some systematic GPS manipulation that’s — deliberately or not — messing with the ships’ AIS system, the tech that helps ships see each other and steer. It’s possible it’s some state actor — Iran is considered a possibility — but the European Space Agency has also detected weakness in Earth’s magnetic field, especially in the South Atlantic, which could be responsible. Anyway, I just want you to know that on top of all the stuff going down, there’s some mysterious electromagnetic junk happening in international waters, and it’s probably not a Pacific Rim situation, but I’d be super remiss if I didn’t bring it up and it did end up being a Pacific Rim situation.

Alexander Martin, Sky News

Passenger

Airline stocks rallied this week, which was weird because air traffic remains incredibly low, all things considered. American Airlines anticipates July’s busiest day will have 4,000 flights, compared to 2,300 in June, but still that would be 40 percent of July 2019’s busiest day, up from 30 percent of June 2019’s. But airlines don’t make money per flight, they make it per passenger, and those levels are still seriously low: the daily average of 314,000 people who went through TSA security checkpoints last week was 13 percent of the equivalent week a year ago, and it’s not like there’s been a big surge, as the prior week was 12 percent of 2019.

Mary Schlangenstein, Bloomberg

Cargo

Several shipments of livestock feed from the United States to China were cancelled, particularly orders that stemmed from a January 2020 trade pact. China’s state importers cancelled 15,000 to 20,000 metric tons of U.S. pork shipments — 10 days worth of imports — and held back shipments of corn and cotton, and put off 23 soybean cargoes. China’s a big player in those commodities, on average buying 55 percent of the U.S. production of soybeans, 80 percent of its sorghum, 16 percent of cotton and 5 percent of pork.

Costas Paris, The Wall Street Journal

Pesticides

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that farmers can no longer spray dicamba, a controversial weed killer used on genetically engineered soybeans and cotton. Approximately 60 million acres of crops will be affected. The suit alleged that the Environmental Protection Agency unlawfully approved the herbicide. Since its introduction to the market in 2017, off-target dicamba — a chemical that kills plants — has damaged millions of acres of non-resisitant crops, prompting hundreds of lawsuits, including one that resulted in a $265 million verdict in favor of a peach farmer who suffered damage to his crops. By 2018, farmers had filed 4,200 official complaints pertaining to alleged damage to 4.7 million acres of soybeans.

Jonathan Hettinger, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Algorithms

Retailers in China are combining enormous reservoirs of consumer data with AI algorithms on a “C2M” production model, where predictions of consumer preferences are used to develop customized, redesigned products for the domestic market. Several of the major players in China’s e-commerce business — JD, Alibaba’s Taobao, Pinduoduo — are getting in on it. Product developed through the algorithmic models were responsible for $2.5 billion in sales in 2018, a figure projected to rise to $5.9 billion by 2022.

Karen Hao, MIT Technology Review

We’ve had two great Numlock Sunday interviews in the past two weeks, one with Rebecca Renner, who wrote “The Misunderstood Python Hunters Saving the Everglades” for Outside Online all about the explosion of the Burmese python in Florida’s everglades, and one with Matt Daniels of The Pudding all about his story “Identifying Generational Gaps in Music” and the excellent data visualizations and interactives they’re making about music, culture and more.

Rebecca can be found on Twitter and at her website, and you should check out The Pudding and Matt’s Twitter.

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