Numlock News: January 8, 2024 • Robots, Ramen, Star Citizen
By Walt Hickey
Sleepy first weekend at the domestic box office, as Wonka continues to hold its chocolatey grip on the top slot with $14.4 million and the haunted swimming pool flick Night Swim opened to just $12 million. The overseas markets bring Night Swim to $17.7 million — decent work for a $15 million budget before marketing, yet again articulating that horror remains a cheap and bankable genre to the extent that “haunted swimming pool” can make back its money even if superheroes can’t. Speaking of which, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has cracked $100 million domestically, and continues to get clobbered by a Willy Wonka musical prequel that has made $465.8 million globally.
Star Citizen is, technically, a video game, though it’s still in alpha, has been in development for 11 years, and more than anything is more an experiment in how much funding can a developer raise while still not in fact delivering a complete game. In 2023, developer Roberts Space Industry reached a new fundraising record of $117 million, bringing the total raised over the course of its lifetime to $658 million. One way they do that is by selling (digital) spaceships to players, and the biggest package available is the Legatus Pack, which contains 187 ships and hundreds of other accessories and, as of this past December, sells for $48,000 in actual human dollars. Launched in 2018 for $27,000 for then-117 ships, every December RSI rolls out an updated pack because there’s demand. Weirdly, thanks to inflation, that’s actually a bit of a bargain compared to last year, and the price per ship is down 12 percent from 2019.
The Samyang Buldak brand of instant ramen is a chicken-flavored spicy noodle soup popular in South Korea which has finally made it onto American shelves. The Buldak ramen comes in at 4,404 units on the Scoville scale, twice as spicy as Tabasco, and it’s one of the bestselling premium ramen at Walmart. Worldwide, the instant noodle market finished at $50 billion in 2023, up 52 percent compared to just five years ago. The United States market is actually considered to be relatively untapped, and poised for significant growth as ramen sheds a reputation as a cheap snack.
Despite my very best efforts in a personal sense, unit sales of print books were down 2.6 percent in 2023 compared to 2022. The good news is that’s less of a dip than otherwise anticipated, particularly as sales were down 4.1 percent as of the first nine months of the year. Yes, thanks to our hard work in the fourth quarter — Britney Spears, Colleen Hoover, me, Henry Winkler, you know the crowd — the sales drop slowed compared to the 6.5 percent decline seen from 2021 to 2022. That was largely the result of a pandemic-era boom in reading, and the good news is that book sales are still up compared to 2019, as the pandemic minted a bunch of readers. Print sales in 2023 were up 10 percent compared to 2019.
There’s a common misconception that automation and replacing workers with robots is easy, but there are all sorts of tasks that are simple for a human but damn near impossible for a robot, even within manufacturing. Take, for instance, Alene, which makes candles, and for the past four years has pursued a machine that can replace a simple task done by humans: Sometimes when a candle is poured, the wick falls into the molten wax and someone’s got to fish it out. This task eludes our metal friends, despite over $1 million invested. As it stands, only 11.1 percent of U.S. manufacturing plants used robots in 2019.
Scotia, California, is a company town, with 272 houses among other essential services originally constructed, furnished and owned by Pacific Lumber so that lumberjacks would be able to live near the trees they cut down. It was a pretty good deal — rent was $21 a month in 1951, and stayed low — so good in fact that the IRS eventually warned them they’d either have to hike rent or consider the cheap housing a taxable benefit. The lumber industry began to go into decline, and eventually Pacific Lumber successor PALCO was bought up by private equity in the form of Marathon Asset Management. This meant that the town of Scotia was literally owned by a New York investment firm, one that is now trying to sell it off parcel by parcel.
The IRS is rolling out a totally free federal tax return filing program as a trial in 12 states, and the move has the tax prep conglomerates seething. The annual costs of a direct file system is estimated to cost anywhere between $64 million and $249 million, depending on what precisely the feds are offering in terms of software. Eight of the states don’t have an income tax at the state level, and the four that do have a state-level income tax (Arizona, California, Massachusetts and New York) are going to have state-supported tools, too.
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