Numlock News: December 23, 2020 • Surprise, Wolves, Spoilers

By Walt Hickey

Surprise!

Monday saw Congress pass a law that banned surprise medical bills, but left a carve-out for some of the most prodigious dealers of surprise expenses to the gravely ill: ambulances. A study found that about 71 percent of ambulance rides have the potential for a surprise bill — not merely a fee for usage, rather, an unexpected surcharge for the services — and on average those cost patients $450. Across private and public ambulances, patients face down $129 million in potential surprise ambulance bills annually.

Sarah Kliff and Margot Sanger-Katz, The New York Times

Galaxy

A new study published in Nature Astronomy from researchers at the University of Tokyo identified the galaxy GN-z11 as the oldest and most distantly detected, with the distance pegged at 13.4 billion light-years, or 134 nonillion kilometers, so a bit of a schlep. The conclusion was drawn based on the galaxy’s redshift, the chemical signatures in the light from GN-z11 and combined measurements made by the Hubble Telescope as well as a ground-based spectrograph in Hawaii called MOSFIRE.

Chelsea Gohd, SPACE.com

A dumb Watchmen joke, it really only kind of works

Large numbers of people have insatiable appetites for spoilers, a survey has found, with 45 percent of respondents saying they specifically look for details related to the events and endings of movies, television shows or sporting events. The reasons vary: of adults who seek out spoilers, 27 percent said knowing helps them decide if they want to watch something, 21 percent said the knowledge of how it ends relaxes them, another 21 percent copped to liking knowing more than other people they watch with, while fully 18 percent said they enjoy the look on people’s face when stuff goes down. There is a serious societal split here: 48 percent think people have become too relaxed about spoilers, while 51 percent of respondents think people recently are too sensitive about spoilers, two incorrigible factions of incompatible people I choose to respectively term Silk Spectres and Doctor Manhattans.

Sarah Shevenock, Morning Consult

Vacancy

The percentage of hotels with mortgages that were delinquent on their loans was 19.66 percent in November, up from 1.52 percent a year ago. The pandemic killed travel, especially business travel, just as a glut of hotel construction pushed a significant rise in rooms available. Now, developers are converting those hotels and motels into affordable housing units, taking vacant hotels and making them into desirable real estate in overheated housing markets. Extended-stay hotels have been ripe for such conversion already, but the kind of rebuild it takes to turn a hotel room into an apartment takes less than a year and is much faster than building an apartment building from scratch. It’s usually the zoning change that’s expensive, but municipal governments have been willing to play ball in tight markets in desperate need of housing stock.

Will Parker and Konrad Putzier, The Wall Street Journal

Robusta

The wholesale price of Robusta coffee is up about 20 percent from last year, and its share of global coffee production is today about 40 percent, up from 20 percent four decades ago. Robusta has a shakier reputation than Arabica beans, as it’s cheaper to produce and has a unique odor for coffee, but more importantly it can be grown at lower altitudes and is resistant to pests compared to Arabica. Robusta’s usage in instant coffees — and the increased popularity of instant coffee during the pandemic — has presented an opportunity for the otherwise second-banana bean.

Munemasa Horio, Nikkei Asian Review

Chilly

Right now, shipments of vaccines are spreading across the country with the essential need that they stay frozen — in the Pfizer case, at negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit — in transport. How that’s verified is the domain of sensors and heat-sensitive labels that had previously been used by food service and other shipping concerns where temperature was essential. Varcode makes the label used by two of the top 10 drugmakers working on the vaccine effort. Spoilage in vaccine distribution is a small but serious issue: across 57 U.S. immunization programs in 1999, the overall wastage rate was 2.6 percent.

Jennifer Smith, The Wall Street Journal

Lost Dog

An ancient puppy found nearly perfectly preserved in the tundra has been dated to 57,000 years of age, leading researchers to believe it’s related to the ancestors of all modern wolves. Found by a gold prospector along Last Chance Creek in the Klondike gold fields, the remarkable thing about the doggie — named Zhùr — is that the preservation is truly incredible. Radiocarbon dating gave the researchers a window of older than 50,000 years, a genomic analysis put the pup somewhere between 75,000 and 56,000 years old, and an analysis of oxygen isotopes in her body projected she lived during a warm time called Marine Isotope Stage 3, which was from 57,000 years ago to 29,000 years ago.

Kiona N. Smith, Ars Technica

This week in the Sunday edition, I continued the longstanding Numlock tradition of closing the year out talking to senior editor Joanna Piacenza from pollster Morning Consult. Every year, Joanna and her team publish a fascinating feature aggregating all the “seen, read, heard” questions they ask in a given year. Joanna can be found at Morning Consult’s news verticaland on Twitter.

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