Numlock News: November 25, 2020 • Mountains, Quasars, Tires
By Walt Hickey
Have a great Thanksgiving, U.S. folks! Numlock resumes next Monday, but everyone can expect a weekend newsletter.
Truck drivers are bristling as an increasing number of operators move to install driver-facing cameras in their vehicles, arguing against the practice on the grounds of safety and privacy. The companies — and the startups hawking the tech — argue that the health and safety outcomes are substantial, that the footage is saved only when it detects risky or distracted driving, and that the insurance savings have been considerable. The companies — Lytx, Samsara, KeepTruckin — have an increasing dashboard presence, with Lytx claiming 650,000 cameras deployed and a 60 percent market share. Samsara, another contender, has attempted to bill their services as a boon to drivers, claiming that their footage has saved clients $225 million in legal fees by presenting exonerating video evidence. The Teamsters, America’s largest trucking union, argue that the added stress of constant monitoring is invariably bad for working conditions based on studies conducted in other fields, and that this data can be collected without the panopticon by the dashboard light.
When we want to track the locations of increasingly far-off objects like the New Horizons probe, there needs to be an incredibly precise map — specifically, a map of quasars, which are ideal for this kind of navigation — to help triangulate the positioning as “distance from earth” becomes less and less useful. Quasars are enormous, bright, and very far away, and as a result they look a lot like stars but with the significant advantage of not appearing to move around as much as stars, which is pretty ideal in terms of setting a celestial anchor point. For years, this “map” was based on observations of a few thousand quasars, guiding satellites, telescopes, probes and all sorts of stuff we chuck off Earth. Next week, Gaia — the group working on the quasar map — will release a new reference frame based on the locations of 1.6 million quasars in the universe, as well as over 1 billion (constantly drifting) stars.
Tourism accounted for 8 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product in 2018, supporting 1 million jobs. One draw was the mountains — home to eight of the 14 tallest on the planet — and one mountain in particular, Everest, was responsible for something like $300 million to the economy alone. This year the Nepali government wanted 2 million visitors, but obviously that plan was put off for a bit, and international arrivals were just 180,131 through October, down from 795,199 over the same period of last year. For the over 100,000 Sherpa people in Nepal, a community that draws an enormous amount of its earnings through the guides, porters, and cooks hired by climbers to summit the high peaks, this year has been abysmal. Now, the travel ban has been lifted, and the government wants the climbers and tourists back.
Internet access in Pakistan came late, and today there are 76 million 3G+ connections and roughly 35 percent of the country can get to the internet. The region of Gilgit-Baltistan is a popular vacation destination, but the internet is incredibly dicey, and fluctuations in population mean that the demands on the system have overwhelmed capacity over the course of the pandemic. Internet usage spiked 250 percent by the end of June, which was rough in a region where the connection topped out a 2G. The reason is that the internet in Gilgit-Baltistan is operated not by a private company but by the Pakistani military, as the region has political similarities to a territory rather than a full-fledged state given its position in the disputed area of Kashmir, which is also claimed by India. Worst of all, the $44 million Pakistan-China Fiber Optic Project — to bring high-speed internet from the nations’ border to Islamabad — uses fiber-optic cables that literally run through 466.54 kilometers of Gilgit-Baltistan, but don’t provide service to the region.
While it’s incredibly positive news that there are a number of promising vaccines in development to stymie the spread of coronavirus, we have now reached the difficult part of the conversation where we have to try to address the fact that an uncomfortably high number of people have some genuinely terrible opinions about vaccines, and at some point we have to deal with that. A Harris poll found that while 39 percent of respondents said they’d get a COVID-19 vaccine even if they were not paid anything, 23 percent said they wouldn’t get a vaccine even if they were offered payment. When asked how much the government should pay people to get a vaccine, 24 percent mentioned a sum of $100 or less, and 16 percent mentioned a higher amount. All told, just 44 percent of people said the government should pay people to get the shot. A proposal to tie a substantial government stimulus to a vaccine — by paying people $1,000 to get a shot, and inoculate two birds with one stone — may not have the support it needs yet, as just 7 percent of respondents said a figure that high or higher.
While national spending on advertisements was down 3.5 percent in the third quarter, television advertising unexpectedly rose 3 percent, driven by the return of several sports and some kind of election that a lot of people were apparently following and keen to get the word out about. This follows a 28 percent decline in the second quarter of the year, and was genuinely surprising and the sign of good things to come: the next few quarters are smooth-sailing content-wise if sports go according to plan, with the Olympics in the distance as an oasis after a bad year for sports.
Discussions of microplastics often avoid a major contributor to microbead pollution — vehicle tires. Specifically, the little tiny bits of tires that get scraped off by the roadway when you brake. Over three years, researchers from the San Francisco Estuary Institute tested water at 12 stormwater outlets and 20 sites in the San Francisco Bay. They estimate that 7.2 trillion synthetic particles wash into the Bay annually, and about half of those particles are rubbery bits believed to come from tires. This checks out: a 2017 study found the average car loses a quarter of a kilogram to two kilograms of tire fragments annually, and in the United States that’s closer to 5 kilograms. Anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of modern tires are synthetic plastic polymers rather than natural rubber.
This week in the Numlock Sunday edition, I spoke to Alison Griswold, the writer of Oversharing, a newsletter about the sharing economy. We talked about the passage of Proposition 22 in California, and what it means for the broader state of the sharing economy. It’s a great chat and Alison is super smart. Alison can be found at Oversharing and on Twitter.
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