Numlock News: January 26, 2022 • Axolotl, SAT, Alexandrium catenella
By Walt Hickey
About 1 percent of the world’s freighter ships accept passengers, but there are a whole lot of freighter ships, so before the pandemic in 2019 about 4,000 people paid for passage on a shipping freighter. It’s a throwback, but for a certain type of traveller — no particular hurry, a desire to get out of dodge for days to weeks, willingness to enjoy modest conditions, definitely not fleeing a massive gambling debt — it’s a godsend. Traveling by cargo ship would set you back between $100 and $150 a day, and the number of days you’ll spend at sea is a bit volatile. It’s more a CD player and books kind of self-diversion situation, and aficionados of the practice considered it similar to a retreat. In March of 2020, shipping lines suspended their passenger services, and some of the smaller shipping companies are planning to reinstate their programs soon. The trouble has been less the pandemic and more port congestion.
Despite all else going on in the world, one thing remained true: Last year, the United States continued to be really good at coaxing plants out of the ground, like the best ever, and we just keep on getting better at corn. The average U.S. yield for corn was 177 bushels per acre, up 3.3 percent over the previous year and a record high, with 16 states posting state records in output, and Iowa itself cranking out an eye-watering average of 205 bushels of corn per acre. Overall production of corn is 15.1 billion bushels, shattering the 2020 estimate, proving that despite the many flaws and headwinds the U.S. may have, man the corn thing, we’re really good at that, I don’t know what to tell you.
Harmful algal blooms are happening more and more often on Alaska’s northern coast, with the number of blooms up over 50 percent from 1998 to 2019. The biggest menace is Alexandrium catenella, which can produce the tasteless toxin paralytic shellfish poison that’s 1,000 times as toxic as cyanide and can kill a person in less than an hour. This is especially a problem in coastal Alaska, because 34 million pounds of wild foods are harvested annually in the subsistence regions of Alaska, a massive source of food for people who live there, something like 276 pounds per person. In some communities that are especially remote, harvested marine animals is three-quarters of the diet. Now, the remote communities are collaborating, gathering and sharing data, to ensure that their food is safe.
Many colleges have made the SATs optional, and one fallout of that shift is now richer kids are disproportionately likely to submit the optional test scores. About 53 percent of the students from the wealthiest households submitted an SAT score on the Common Application this year, compared to 39 percent of those from the poorest households. That’s a massive shift from the 2019–20 school year, when 78 percent of kids from richer households submitted SAT scores and 71 percent of those from the poorest did, representing both the erosion of the SAT’s necessity as well as the expanding gap in score submission between richer and poorer kids. This year, just 5 percent of 850 schools on the Common App requested SAT or ACT scores, down from 55 percent in 2019.
This past weekend saw four ridiculously interesting NFL Divisional Playoff games, and the ratings bear out that the league is on a rebound. The Rams-Buccaneers afternoon game on NBC had 38.14 million viewers, up 11 percent over the same broadcast of 2021; Saturday’s Bengals-Titians afternoon game saw an average of 30.75 million viewers, up 16 percent; and the evening 49ers-Packers game had 36.92 million, up 41 percent over 2021. The Sunday night primetime game between the Chiefs and Bills, though, was truly the gem in the NFL’s crown, with its 42.74 million viewers serving as the most-watched divisional game in five years, up 20 percent over 2021.
In 1979, Mass Audubon began a program to take the handful of disoriented Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that got turned around and stranded on Cape Cod and fly them down to Texas, where they would not freeze to death. The hooked shape of Cape Cod causes the largest recurring sea turtle stranding event in the world, and as conservationists try to keep Kemp’s ridley alive, the turtles who strand themselves on the Massachusetts beach thinking they’ve made it south for the winter are an important opportunity for the organized effort to thwart the will of Darwin and help the species persevere. In 2014, volunteers found 1,242 turtles stranded on Cape Cod, the record, and in 2020 there were 1,040 found, the second-highest on record. Those are important if misguided turtles: From the 1940s to the 1980s the number of Kemp’s ridley nesting females fell from 40,000 to 300. Today there are 5,500 nesting females in Mexico and 55 in Texas. The turtle rescue and subsequent flight south — which from the perspective of the turtle must be basically like when you learn the Fly fast travel HM in Pokemon — is a key part of keeping the species afloat.
An axolotl is a small salamander with striking external gills. They’re popular as lab animals — they have impressive regenerative abilities which are fascinating to scientists — and as pets, with about 1 million axolotls in human care globally. That far exceeds their numbers in Mexico, their home range, where they’re on the brink of extinction. They’re found only in the Xochimilco borough of Mexico City, and while in the 1990s there were about 6,000 axolotls per square kilometer, today there are less than 36 per square kilometer. The water there can’t support many native species given that they’re full of pesticides and fertilizers. Most of the axolotls in human care are descended from a small group of 34 axolotls brought from Mexico City to Paris in the 1860s, so are not exactly a font of genetic diversity.
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