Numlock News: April 5, 2023 • Conspiracy, Sleight of Hand, Ornithology
By Walt Hickey
The founder of a startup that claimed to make it easier to access financial aid that was bought by J.P. Morgan Chase for $175 million has been arrested in New Jersey on charges of conspiracy and wire and bank fraud. The startup was called Frank, but the actual customer base turned out to be dubious: The founder claimed Frank had over 4 million users, but in fact had less than 300,000 customers, and the customer data presented to J.P. Morgan was actually that of 4.25 million students purchased for $105,000 on the open market. Authorities said Charlie Javice would have made $45 million from the fraud.
This weekend will see the release of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which is poised to be one of the biggest hits of the year. The movie will open in over 4,000 cinemas in North America and is currently tracking for a debut above $125 million domestically, which would be one of the biggest opening weekends for an animated film ever. Also opening this weekend is Air, directed by Ben Afleck and starring Matt Damon and Viola Davis, and it’ll be an interesting gauge of how many adults can be coerced back into cinemas for a drama with huge stars and what is already excellent reviews. The current projection is $18 million — not awesome for a budget of $70 million to $80 million before marketing — but how this one does could be a bellwether for whether 2023 will see the kind of recovery at the box office many have been holding out for. A win there would also functionally greenlight an Affleck Cinematic Shoeniverse, an interconnected series of films detailing the emergence of a ragtag team of footwear — the Invincible All-Star, the Birkenstock, the Incredible Croc, the mystical Doctor Marten, and more — that culminates in Affleck’s The Cobblers in 2025.
Lord God Bird
In 2021, the U.S. government said that it appears that the ivory-billed woodpecker has gone extinct, a divisive claim that some ornithologists and birders dispute. The last time that there was an undisputed sighting of the bird — which has a three-foot wingspan — was in 1944, but there have been sporadic and uncorroborated claims of the animal in the years since. The animal’s habitat has been largely destroyed by logging, and given the 10-year lifespan of the bird, the feds are calling it quits despite substantial efforts to try to find one. The bird’s got some fans who are trying to prove the Fish & Wildlife Service wrong.
When the Taliban took over the country in August 2021, the staff of more than 60 embassies and consulates around the world became the last remnants of an Afghan government that no longer existed. Just five countries — China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Turkmenistan — have turned their Afghanistan embassies over to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. This leaves the remaining staff of exiles to attempt to operate overseas resources for Afghans abroad with rapidly diminishing resources. One pickle in particular is that the previous Afghan government signed a contract with a Lithuanian company called Garsu Pasaulis to produce passports. Given that the government that hired them technically no longer exists, there are now 3 million blank Afghan passports languishing in some Lithuanian warehouse, with the embassies and the Taliban arguing about to whom they belong. As a result, black market Afghan passports go for up to $1,500.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been disastrous for the technology and IT business in Russia, which was a small but growing part of the economy. Something like 100,000 IT specialists left the country last year, about 10 percent of the workforce, and that’s an official number and possibly an underestimation. The IT sector in Russia was worth 3.7 trillion rubles ($47.8 billion) in 2021, and while that’s just 3.2 percent of GDP it was responsible for a full third of the growth in the country’s GDP from 2015 to 2021.
Two-year community colleges have had a rough decade, with enrollment down 37 percent since 2010, down 2.6 million. Community colleges are an important part of the higher ed ecosystem, not only offering education at a substantially lower price point — averaging $3,860 in tuition and fees versus $10,940 at four-year public universities and $39,400 at private ones — but also supporting people who are the first in their families to pursue higher ed, with 29 percent being the first to go to college. There are some issues: a hot job market reducing the value of an associate degree is one, but the other is that many community colleges aren’t delivering for students, with four of five entrants planning to get a bachelor’s degree but only one in six getting one.
The French Drop is a simple sleight-of-hand magic trick where a magician makes an object appear to vanish by transferring it to their other hand with the use of their thumb. Humans, which to some notoriety usually possess a thumb, fall for it all the time. A new study published in Current Biology sought to perform the trick using food in front of different types of monkey, some species of which had thumbs and some of which did not, to see how the trick worked on them. The capuchins, who have dextrous opposable thumbs, fell for it 81 percent of the time, and the squirrel monkeys, who have a less dextrous thumb, fell for it 93 percent of the time. The marmosets do not have opposable thumbs, and they rarely fell for the thumb-based trick, being fooled just 6 percent of the time. This lines up with earlier research in crows — also lacking thumbs — that don’t give a damn about our thumb-based illusions. This argues that to be fooled by a physical trick, the performer and the viewer might need to have similar anatomies.
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