Numlock News: April 12, 2021 • Smuggling, Super Mario, Cicadas

By Walt Hickey

Welcome back!

Another Castle

Speedrunner Niftski became the first person to break 4 minutes, 55 seconds in a speedrun of Super Mario Bros., a monumental barrier break that required pretty much everything to break in the right direction to get the successful 4:54.948 time and approaching the theoretical limit of what can be done by a human in the game. The theoretical best time for a human speedrun — based on the times observed in tool-assisted runs — is 4:54.282, while the best time a person can actually achieve after stripping out a few tricks facilitated by the computer in those runs is estimated to be about 4:54.798. The difference between the believed upper bound of human accomplishment in Super Mario Bros. and what Niftski posted last week, about .15 seconds, amounts to just 9 frames.

Kyle Orland, Ars Technica


The widespread closure of hotels and the cratering of business travel in the U.S. during the pandemic reverberated well beyond the hospitality industry. It also seems to have left a crater in the readership of USA Today, the default newspaper available in every hotel in the United States. The paper’s average weekday circulation during the first quarter of 2020 was 486,579; the average over the course of the second and third quarters fell to 194,369, a loss of 292,210 copies and a 60 percent change. That loss was almost entirely due to the huge exposure USA Today has in hotels: 298,312 copies of USA Today per day went to hotel rooms and lobbies in the first quarter, which fell to 44,947 between April and September.

William Turvill, Press Gazette

Disadvantage on Insight

Determining whether a person is lying is really hard, with several of the usual tricks — speed of speech, length of silence, smiling randomly, higher-pitched voice, fidgeting, gaze aversion, hesitations — not actually having much basis in science. Still, there’s no foolproof way to see through lies, according to the research: One analysis of 206 studies that involved 24,483 observers evaluating 6,651 communications over 4,435 individuals found that people were unable to pick true from false better than 54 percent of the time, with the accuracy rate of individual experiments ranging from 31 percent to 73 percent. One study published in 2019 had subjects instructed to smuggle a laptop on a ferry and not look suspicious in the process; when videos of the ferry rides were shown to 104 volunteers who were told to find the smugglers, they did no better than chance. A later study, involving a sum of foreign cash, found the analysts finding the correct smuggler just 39.2 percent of the time.

Jessica Seigel, Knowable Magazine


A byproduct of desalination plants that take ocean water and convert it into something drinkable is brine, and lots of it. There are something like 51.8 billion cubic meters of waste brine produced annually, and while that’s a drop in the bucket in the broader ocean, it’s often hell on the ecosystems right near the the output pipes. Finding some better use for the saline sludge would be ideal, which is why a number of trials are happening to see if brine can be used as recycled plant food for varietals resistant to salt, like some tomatoes.

Pip Knight, Hakai Magazine

Brood X

The emergence of billions of the Brood X of periodical cicadas in the eastern United States is poised to set up a smorgasbord for the birds, fish, spiders, and reptiles that hunt and eat bugs, and is set to provoke a temporary boost to predator populations all the way up the food chain. One analysis of 24 bird species over the course of 37 years of survey data found 15 species saw population changes linked to the cycle of cicada emergence, all seeing a boost one to three years after the cicadas swarmed the continent before a return to normal. Cuckoos are known to go so far as to migrate to search out the outbreaks, sort of the “midnight Taco Bell run to the next town over where theirs is open till 1” of the avian world.

Jillian Mock, Scientific American


Enormous news in the green energy business as two South Korean battery makers have cut a last-minute deal to end a trade dispute that could have wiped out a swath of green energy jobs in the United States and stymied the efforts of a number of U.S. automakers to roll out a greener fleet. Over the past two years, SK Innovation and LG Chem have been locked in a bitter fight over whether SK Innovation poached intellectual property related to electric battery tech from LG Chem. Earlier this year, the U.S. found it did, which led to a 10-year import ban of SK Innovation batteries into the U.S. This was particularly devastating because Ford and Volkswagen planned to begin production on electric F-150 and SUVs using SK Innovation batteries from a plant to be built in Georgia, and the ban would jeopardize about 6,000 jobs in the state. The settlement — which comes on the eve of April 11, when the Biden administration would have had to decide whether to overturn the import ban — will involve SK Innovation paying 2 trillion won ($1.8 billion) to LG Energy Solution in cash and royalties.

Gabrielle Coppola, Susan Decker and Christoph Rauwald, Bloomberg


China is slamming Alibaba Group with a $2.8 billion fine for violations of its anti-monopoly regulations, which amounts to about 4 percent of Alibaba’s $69 billion in 2019 sales. It’s been a rough couple of months for Alibaba; in October, following co-founder Jack Ma’s remarks about China’s broader financial system, Ma did not appear in public until late January. Then, in November, a planned $37 billion IPO of affiliate company Ant Group was scuttled after financial regulators raised red flags two days before listing.

Elena Moore, NPR

Correction April 12: An earlier version of this story misstated that higher-pitched voice, fidgeting, gaze aversion, hesitations had some grounding in science; they were just associated with lying, but also lack grounding.

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