Numlock News: April 24, 2020 • Stratotanker, Pseudoscience, Hijacking

By Walt Hickey

Have a great weekend!

DVD

While all the attention goes to the signature streaming app, Netflix has low-key maintained a brisk DVD rental business. The number of films available on the Netflix app fell from 6,494 in 2014 to 3,849 today, but through their DVD.com rental service you can still pretty much get anything you want, which as far as 270 competing digital streaming platforms go is legally impossible. The weird part is, while Netflix is burning cash to make new stuff on its streaming side, the DVD business is a steady one: During the fourth quarter of 2019, DVD.com made $37.3 million in profits from its 2,153,000 users, a solid $17.34 per user, which is more than the $13.09 generated per U.S. Netflix subscriber per quarter.

Patrick Sisson, Vox

Piracy

Truck hijackings are strangely common in the United States. CargoNet counted up some 2,600 truck thefts in 2019, and put the average value of a trailer theft at $148,000. Cargo thieves operate all over the country, lifting loads ranging from consumer goods and electronics to cell phones, really anything that can be hijacked, ripped off and fenced on the black market. Carriers frequently require drivers to go 200 miles without stopping to deter thieves, a distance that not only makes possible robbers reconsider the five-hour drive, but also will probably entail a state line, thus making the thievery a federal crime. They’re also trying to stop the regular practice of stashing trailers at friendly truck stops during days off or priority runs.

Dylan Taylor-Lehman, Narratively

Snake Oil

A sucker is born every minute, and Facebook was committed to delivering audiences comprised entirely of such schmucks to dedicated advertisers seeking to hawk their wares. At least they were until yesterday when The Markup revealed it was possible to advertise to an audience of 78 million people who Facebook’s ad portal determined possessed an interest in “pseudoscience.” The company subsequently eliminated the category. The investigation was prompted by a reporter — who had recently reported on a specific brand of 5G crackpot — seeing an advertisement for a hat that the promotion claimed protected them from harmful electromagnetic radiation.

Aaron Sankin, The Markup

Rockets

SpaceX notched a significant milestone Wednesday, having successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket 84 times. That beats the total flights by rival United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V. SpaceX has averaged 17 flights per year over the past three years, a fast clip that helped them catch up to their rival, whose Atlas V blasted off roughly three months after the formation of SpaceX but has flown an average five flights per year since then. In May, SpaceX will launch a manned Crew Dragon spacecraft, so we have a literal space race, people.

Eric Berger, Ars Technica

Mail Trucks

One proposal for a burst of stimulus: revamp mail trucks. From 1987 to 1994, the US Postal Service bought 141,000 Grumman Long Life Vehicles, which constitute the boxy bulk of the agency’s 229,000-vehicle fleet. The intended lifespan of the vehicles was roughly 24 years, but the average age is 28, and it costs the USPS about $2 billion annually to maintain them. They get about 10 miles per gallon, one reason that the USPS consumes 194.5 million gallons of gasoline and diesel per year — up 28 percent since 2005 — at some $500 million cost, and why the 44 trillion BTU in energy use by the agency is the highest of any agency in government. So with a bit of an economic hiccup ongoing, why not give them a green refresh?

David Roberts, Vox

Ports

By 2027, China plans to build or expand upwards of 70 ports around the world as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. While that will connect more countries, it will also seriously impact marine ecosystems and wildlife. A new study puts some concerning numbers on the precise impact: over 400 threatened marine species may see habitat destruction or alteration due to Belt and Road port infrastructure, and another 200 species will be at risk for noise pollution from shipping, of which 30 are critically endangered. It’s expected to be the worst in the central Indian Ocean and West Africa.

Kimberly Riskas, Hakai Magazine

Savings

From 1954 to 1964, the U.S. Air Force bought 396 KC-135 Stratotankers, a fleet that are not only still in use, but the longest-serving aircraft in the world. A new Air Force study found that a small tweak to the tanker’s windshield wipers could save a fortune in fuel costs: changing to a resting vertical position increased overall efficiency by 0.8 percent, and a slimmer wiper increased it by 0.2 percent. That seems low, but the planes used 290 million gallons of fuel in 2018-19, so the improved windshield wipers could save $7 million per year in fuel costs. Had the adjustment been made in ‘65, they would have saved $385 million.

Kyle Mizokami, Popular Mechanics

This past Sunday I spoke to Nicole Hemmer, a historian and the host of a new Radiotopia podcast called This Day In Esoteric Political History. You should check out the podcast, it’s short, snappy, and super interesting.

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