Numlock News: October 22, 2020 • Quibi, Beetles, Pickups
By Walt Hickey
Quibi, the richly-funded mobile video-on-demand startup from Dreamworks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and former HP CEO Meg Whitman, will fold after deciding they lacked the buyers or investors necessary to really mount a bid to woo new subscribers. Quibi raised $1.75 billion from backers that included Disney, Comcast, AT&T and ViacomCBS, secured $150 million in ad commitments from companies like Pepsi, Walmart and Anheuser-Busch InBev, and after a splurge on content and advertising is now down to $350 million that will be returned to investors. Which, from a balance sheet perspective alone, kind of makes Quibi a weird little jobs program that extracted capital from large media conglomerates and redirected it to creatives, writers, and Chrissy Teigen during an incredibly difficult year economically, which I don’t actually hate? Anyway, finally someone has proven that there’s no future in compelling, entertaining quick bites of content supported by devotees who pay a modest recurring monthly fee.
A combination of fire, disease, and recession have made it a wild year for the wood business, and as it stands, the high demand for lumber is causing costs for a new single-family home in the United States to increase. Since mid-April the average selling price is up $15,841, with a third of the increase — $4,200 — coming from higher prices for Oriented Strand Board, or OSB, the lower-cost alternative to plywood that hit a record $729 per thousand square feet in September, up from about $250 per thousand square feet around the start of the year. OSB is the bonded wood chip sheets that are used as sheathing in wall, floors, and roofs, and for the first time since 2006 it’s pricier than plywood.
Earlier this year Universal Pictures infuriated cinemas when they released Trolls World Tour, an animated film for children starring Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, and several podcasters, direct-to-consumer. This was back in the spring, when people still possessed the capacity for shock at a changing business norm, so it was a whole kerfuffle. Now we’re coming to the end of the year, and Universal is the best friend cinemas have left: everyone has stripped down their release calendar to the dregs, the gambles, and the Oscar bait, which is rough on movie theaters because if Hollywood is keeping its power dry until 2021, they’re pretty screwed. Universal, on the other hand, is putting out double its output of 2019, bringing eight films slated for domestic release which is more than the four that Sony and Disney each have and the one that Warner Bros. is still planning to drop. These range from romantic comedy All My Life to animated feature Croods: A New Age, which stars Nicolas Cage and won’t come out direct to VOD. Well, that’s new, good for him.
Full-sized pickups are in higher-than-typical demand, with the average price of a full-sized pickup hitting $21,557 in August, up 31.5 percent or $5,166 since February. The reason for this, in a roundabout way, is tariffs: there’s a 25 percent import tariff on foreign-made pickups, except for Canada and Mexico, which has basically wiped out the import market for pickups. Canada and Mexico supplied 96 percent of all imported pickups in 2019 — 625,000 units, and 30 percent of all trucks sold — with the rest coming from U.S. based manufacturers and a couple from Spain. On the converse, when it comes to cars, SUVs and minivans, Canada and Mexico supplied just 39 percent of all imports, with the rest coming from Japan, South Korea, Germany, and a handful of other mostly European producers. The issue in 2020 is that that high tariffs mean that America’s pickups are dependent on just three countries, and incidentally those three countries have seen trade collapse as they wrestle with a deadly virus, so truck imports from Canada and Mexico are down 27.4 percent and car imports are down 31.7 percent. The rest of the car business is diversified and not as bad off: non-truck imports are down 4.7 percent overall because other countries are allowed to import them without onerous tariffs.
In a situation that might or might not be directed by Paul Verhoeven, the American military has funded a study about crushing bugs. Specifically, crushing the diabolical ironclad beetles, which have crush-resistant shells that are layered and pieced together intricately giving them incredible, yet lightweight, strength. The researchers have found the species is able to withstand compression of 39,000 times its own weight, which for a 200 pound man would be 7.8 million pounds. The research was funded as part of an $8 million Air Force project, so anytime someone facetiously asks “well, why don’t they just make the whole plane out of the black box?” you can actually assure them that the government is working on that!
A new study published in Science found that birds really were going for it in urban areas during early shutdowns: Urban white-crowned sparrows did, in fact, sound much louder than usual, even if things were actually a little easier for them. The ambient sound of the city declined over 50 percent, so the birds didn’t have to yell to be heard by other birds, so they were able to sing 30 percent more softly. But, the end result of that was the songs carried twice as far as usual, and features in the birdsong that hadn’t been heard since the 1970s came back.
AltaRock Energy, a project from the Department of Energy’s advanced research arm, estimated that 0.1 percent of the heat content of Earth can supply all human energy needs for 2 million years, with the hand-wavy term “geothermal” encompassing all the individual angles and tech designed to extract that. The molten core of earth is roughly 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and the heat is conveniently replenished: naturally occurring radioactive elements decay at a rate of 30 terawatts, about of double human energy consumption and will continue for billions of years, which does effectively tackle my first concern of, “wait, but can it run out?” There are now 60 commercial geothermal plants in the U.S., with installed geothermal capacity reaching 3.65 gigawatts. Hilariously, we have found the one realm of renewable energy in which the U.S. is a genuine leader, riding the bleeding edge, as the nearest follow-up is Indonesia with 1.95 GW.
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