Numlock News: November 30, 2021 • Huckleberries, Human Error, Nanocameras
By Walt Hickey
Huckleberries are delicious, tart berries that are gathered from public lands in the American West. Demand is up, but supplies are down, and prices have doubled to $17 per pound in the past two years. Peak season is a few weeks of summer, and it’s a frenzy to supply the commercial huckleberry market of around 3 million pounds annually. The overall value of that market is $50 million, which is a blessing as well as a curse for the many small, independent jam producers in the region who are seeing sales soar, but the supply get a little more tenuous. It’s a historically highly competitive market for pickers, who are also competing with bears, which needless to say makes things extremely interesting.
Interpol announced they’d arrested 1,003 people in connection with online scams like money laundering, online gambling and romance scams in a sweeping 20 country crackdown. They intercepted some $27 million in illicit funds, in the process closing 1,660 open cases and blocking 2,350 bank accounts linked to the alleged scammers. The stings were truly global, with countries on multiple continents participating, and Interpol was able to post notices on mobile apps infected with malware they managed to interdict. The operation ran from June to September of this year.
A new analysis of emissions data from the EPA found over 1,000 hot spots in the United States of toxic air pollution. Given that there’s clear evidence of companies releasing waste into the air that has long-term deleterious side effects, it should be a cut-and-dried case for the talented and wide-ranging forces of the EPA to crack down on the obvious ones; unfortunately, those forces don’t actually exist, and people downwind of toxic emissions are pretty much high and dry unless there’s a monitor installed. And good luck with that: the EPA spends just $5 million per year on monitoring, managing to run a paltry 26 monitoring stations across the country. Without a monitor reading in the red, there’s no requirement to investigate nearby polluters.
This year 1.4 million people took the guokao in China on Sunday, a civil service exam the results of which will place the next generation of junior government workers. These are highly desirable jobs: in fact, given that the government is hiring for just 31,200 positions, you’re talking around 46 people competing for each gig. The most popular post — a postal service job in Tibet that doesn’t require a degree or experience — has attracted 20,000 applicants. About two-thirds of the jobs are set to go to fresh graduates, a demographic that’s been hurting economically. The unemployment rate for people aged 19 to 24 in China is 14.2 percent, significantly higher than the 4.2 percent jobless rate among those aged 25 to 29.
The Transportation Security Administration screened 2.45 million airline passengers on Sunday, which was the single highest number of travelers in the pandemic era. Over the entire 10-day Thanksgiving period, 20.9 million passengers were screened at U.S. airports. That’s good for around 89 percent of the pre-pandemic air travel numbers, signaling a substantial rebound. Overall, flights were rather smooth and there weren’t the kind of cascading cancellations and delays that’s plagued the aviation business over the course of the recovery, thanks mostly to favorable weather all weekend and efforts by airlines to add staff and flights.
It’s a commonly cited statistic in the United States that 94 percent of car crashes are the result of human error, a description which takes blame that could be distributed to weather conditions, vehicle design and road design, and instead heaps it all onto the last individual to make an error, the driver. Researchers with a more international view tend to view that as not just naive, but a view that limits what kind of safety improvements can be made to existing infrastructure; if 94 percent is driver error, how can you out-design that? While U.S. road fatalities are up over 10 percent in the past decade, as vehicles gain mass and get larger and deadlier without commensurate changes to roads, the European Union’s seen traffic deaths decline 36 percent from 2010 to 2020. They did it not by blaming drivers for making the final bad decision, but by pushing car makers to design vehicles that are less deadly for pedestrians and cyclists, and by actively improving problematic stretches of road to reduce accidents.
In a breakthrough that absolutely will have no foreseeable negative consequences, researchers at Princeton and the University of Washington have designed a camera the size of a coarse grain of salt that can produce color images on par with a vastly larger camera a half-million times its size. The new optical system is a metasurface half a millimeter across with 1.6 million cylinder posts that each have the width of a virus and serve as optical antennae. The paper, published in Nature Communications, offers suggested uses in medical robotics and minimally-invasive endoscopies, but as an avid reader of cyberpunk and a reporter who attended Transmetropolitan J-school, I can’t help but fear that an endoscopy is somehow not the most invasive possible use of this kind of tech.
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