Numlock News: August 22, 2019 • Zeppelins, Gorillas, Polio

By Walt Hickey


In 21 states, natural language processing is either the primary or the secondary essay grader on standardized tests. Of those 21 states, only three said that each essay was also graded by a human, which given what I know about how dicey NLP is and what I can imagine about how the lowest bidder for that contract is furnishing it, that is not great! In the other 18 states, a fraction of essays — 5 percent to 20 percent — are randomly selected for human grading. This is particularly dangerous because NLP analysis can be trained on improper information, scoring for things like vocabulary over even basic sentence coherence, and discriminating against students for regional dialects or vernacular.

Todd Feathers, Vice


Africa is very near to being polio free. It’s been three years since the last recorded case of the affliction on the continent. The last case was recorded in the Borno state of Nigeria in August 2016, and if no more incidences occur in the coming months, the entire continent can be declared polio-free in 2020. As recently as 2012, 200 kids in Nigeria were affected by the scourge, about half of the cases at the time were concentrated predominantly in the northeast part of the country where access to health workers was limited by Boko Haram, which has since lost large swathes of territory. Polio is still found in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last remaining bulwarks of the virus.

Lucy Lamble, The Guardian


Great news for every unemployed person named Phineas: A new scientific paper vouches for the potential of using enormous, hydrogen-filled rigid air ships like the Hindenberg of old as the foundation of a new international shipping corridor, and I say we hear them out. Sure, hydrogen is explosive, but I’m not exactly getting a “flame retardant” vibe from jet fuel these days anyway, so what’s the worst that could happen. The proposal would allow airships 10 times the size of the 800-foot Hindenberg and would be roughly 100 percent less problematic, politically speaking. They’d use the free power of the jet stream to ship tonnage of goods without exhaust of carbon dioxide. Such a ship could hypothetically circle the globe in 16 days, cart 20,000 tons of cargo, be built with carbon fiber to make them safer, expend minimal energy by using existing jet streams, and mitigate risk with robotic crews. And now that they point it out, it’s not like we never used boats ever again after the Titanic, or reactors after Chernobyl, or bridges after River Kwai.

Jeremy Deaton, NBC News

Brazilian Dogs

There are an estimated 52 million dogs in Brazil, far more than anywhere else in South America, and much like their fellow domesticated carnivores they’re presenting a bit of an ecological problem in what is one of the few remaining nexuses of biodiversity on the planet. When cameras were set up across 2,400 acres of forests, by far the most common of 17 mammals was domesticated dogs out for a jaunt, animals neither feral nor entirely tamed. They outnumber ocelots 85 to one and pumas 25 to one, which does make sense because we’ve yet to learn how to teach an ocelot to play fetch. Regardless, there are 191 animals cited by the International Union for Conservation of Nature at risk because of man’s best friend, of which there are about 1 billion on the planet.

Terrence McCoy, The Washington Post

Internet Bills

Cable companies, contending with the reality that people increasingly shy away from cable, have managed to squeeze out increasing year over year revenues, with the preferred method of hiking internet bills to pad margins. The average monthly spending on internet bills was up to $66.24 last year, which is up 64 percent since 2010, when the average bill was $40.42. Moreover, 59 percent of broadband subscribers don’t know what internet speed they’re even paying for. In a complicated world, it’s somehow nice to know that there remains some form of constant, namely that cable companies will find some way to bleed you at the end of the day.

Patrick Thomas and Lillian Rizzo, The Wall Street Journal


Rwanda doubled the price of a permit to visit its famous mountain gorillas to $1,500 each, and while overall permits fell by a third, the number of visitors from the U.S. who came to see the great apes jumped 114 percent. In 2016, Rwanda pulled in $15 million related to primate tourism, which increased to $19.2 million last year. Americans spent an average of $12,000 per person visiting the nation, and Rwanda wants to get tourism revenue up to $800 million by 2024 compared to $438 million in 2017.

Saul Butera, Bloomberg

The Mountain

A 157-acre property on top of a mountain overlooking Los Angeles that once had an asking price of $1 billion has sold at 0.01% of that, for $100,000 at an auction behind the county courthouse. The buyer? The same people that the current landowners owed $200 million to, which is convenient because a different new owner would have to assume that cost had they bit. Back in 2004, an investor bought the lot for $45 million, borrowed from the seller. The listing was at $1 billion last summer, which subsequently fell to $650 million by February. I get that the real estate business can be dynamic, but this land sold for $8 million in 1997, a then record, so unless the mountain was made out of gold or printer ink, I don’t know where that valuation came from.

Jack Flemming, The Los Angeles Times

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