Numlock News: October 5, 2023 • Kuiper, Copper, Shingrix
By Walt Hickey
We’re now just three weeks away from my book release! If you haven’t already, get in a preorder today.
The U.S. passport famine is over, and the new crop of passports is coming in fecund and full, with the nation’s passport industry weeping with joy at the bounty of passports before us, truly a mighty harvest and one that will be told of — no, sung — for generations to come, the end of The Great Passport Deprivation. Basically, everyone wanted to travel at the same time and as recently as March it took anywhere from 10 to 13 weeks to get a passport, a level that has been brought back down to 8 to 11 weeks thanks to a concerted effort by the State Department to address that backlog. In fiscal year 2023, the State Department has issued 24 million passport books and cards, significantly more than the previous record of 21 million set in 2022.
Exorcist: Believer is out this weekend, a reboot to the Exorcist franchise that’s projected to open to somewhere between $30 million and $35 million, which is pretty solid and pretty standard for a horror movie opening. Ideally, because it’s based on a legendary film, the studio would love this thing to have some legs, running off good word of mouth and potentially keeping that momentum going. The issue is, reviews are not particularly good, and that has Universal sweating. Many horror movies succeed financially despite not exactly being critical darlings — it’s the nature of genre work that critics often don’t care for what audiences do — but this Exorcist movie has a bit more riding on it than your typical horror flick, as Universal reportedly paid $400 million for the rights to the Exorcist franchise in 2021, so this has a bit more than just its budget riding on it.
Tuberculosis kills 1.6 million people per year, and for years pharmaceutical giant GSK has had an experimental vaccine that, in trials, prevented half of those infected from getting sick, the most successful TB vaccine ever. That was funded by all sorts of government and nonprofit money that uses a GSK-patented adjuvant, which was also produced thanks to government investment. It has not been released, because instead of investing money in developing vaccines that could save millions of lives in the developing world, GSK instead put all its resources into a shingles treatment for the rich American market where the people who tend to get it — seniors — have government insurance. That shingles vaccine, Shingrix, has made them $14 billion since 2018. Even though GSK appears to have no interest in bringing that TB shot to market, they still control the adjuvant, so they were able to keep everyone else from developing a life-saving shot. At this point, a vaccine trial funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute isn’t expected to end before 2028.
Copper is an essential substance for a world that runs on electricity, and demand for new power networks, electric vehicles, and green technology is poised to cause a massive increase in demand for the metal. That said, new mines take years to develop, so the people who need that metal are trying to figure out ways to get a hold of it even faster. That’s led some miners to consider reopening mines that closed decades ago because of fluctuations in the price of copper, or because they became less and less viable as the ore ran out. With demand for copper rising, this could be a way to beat new mines to market; of 127 new mines opened around the world from 2002 to 2023, on average it took a mine 15.7 years to reach commercial production.
The New Horizons spacecraft did a flyby of Pluto about five years ago, and now it’s past the Kuiper belt and researchers are trying to figure out what, if anything, is left out there in the far reaches of the solar system that’s worth the spacecraft trying to take pictures of. To that end, Earth-based telescopes have been scanning the areas out past what’s thought to be the back side of the Kuiper belt to see what’s left to see. What they’ve found is really cool: 12 objects that are at least 60 astronomical units out, which mean that they’re as far from Pluto as Pluto is from the Sun, putting them 10-AU away from what was thought to be the end of the Kuiper belt. New Horizons is now 57 AU away, and while the team expected that the amount of dust it detected would drop off considerably after it exited the belt, it has not, which leads to exciting possibilities that there may be more stuff out there.
Pakistan was on a steady upward path at developing a phone assembly industry that delivered good wages and corporate stability for workers, rising from 11,740,000 phones assembled in 2019 to 24,660,000 phones assembled in 2021 and 21,940,000 phones assembled in 2022. However, this promising industry has been in a downward spiral after a number of economically destabilizing events struck the country: Almost all of the 30 factories shut down earlier this year because they ran out of raw material due to severe import restrictions enacted by the government through July, putting 20,000 people out of work. Essentially, Pakistan as a whole ran almost disastrously low on foreign exchange reserves, and the import-reliant phone assembly business was among the hardest-hit by the import restrictions the government rolled out after. As a result, only 10.6 million phones were assembled in 2023.
Over the course of the first five days of the fall holiday in China, 655,000 visitors went to gambling destination Macau. That means that Macau was looking at 85 percent of the arrivals it saw over the same holiday week in 2019, a massive recovery for a city that was uniquely impacted by pandemic-era lockdowns. Gambling revenue for October is projected to hit $2.4 billion, which is 72 percent of the level logged in the same month pre-pandemic. That’s a relief for operators, even if the government has pulled the rug out from under the casinos by specifically cracking down on the junket system that brought in high rollers from the mainland out to Macau. The VIP segment is estimated to return to just 15 percent of the pre-pandemic levels.
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