Numlock News: February 16, 2021 • Perseverance, Fluff, Detective Chinatown 3

By Walt Hickey

Welcome back!

Five Stars

Google will pay a €1.1 million fine over its hotel rating system in France. Like many companies that make a living rating hotels, restaurants, movies and more, Google pretty much punted their evaluations of hotels in France to a custom, internal algorithm, doling out stars based on a secret proprietary sauce. In France, this is a problem because the standard classification system of Atout France, which is the public tourist board, also relies on a commonly accepted star system and has applied those stars to 7,500 establishments. The hotels — accustomed to one extremely specific star system — got mad at Google for pushing their identical but different system, and the French consumer watchdog agency pounced. Remember, it’s only a five-star rating system if it’s from the Champagne region of France, anywhere else and it’s just sparkling downvotes.

Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch

Detective Chinatown 3

The film Detective Chinatown 3 dropped in China this past New Year weekend, and with ticket sales of ¥2.74 billion — or $424 million in its first three days — it’s not only the first time that the Chinese box office broke ¥1 billion a day for three consecutive days, but it also demolished other records, all despite caps of 75 percent capacity attendance at theaters. This translates to 55 million individual tickets. On its opening day, Detective Chinatown 3 made ¥1.05 billion ($163 million), the largest amount of money ever made by a movie in one market on a single day, beating Avengers: Endgame’s $157 million first-day domestic haul.

Rebecca Davis, Variety

Fluff

A new study of 250 species of Himalayan songbirds found that the birds who lived in higher altitudes had fluffier feathers, which helps protect them against the extreme cold at those levels. Birds have to keep their hearts at about 40 degrees Celsius, but the temperatures in their habitats can get down to -10 degrees Celsius. Feathers have an outer part and a fluffy, hidden downy portion closer to the base, and an examination of feathers of 2,000 individual birds found that the higher the elevations the birds lived at, more of the feather tended to be fluffy down rather than straight and tight.

Victoria Gill, BBC News

Perseverance

On February 18, NASA’s new Perseverance rover will enter Mars’ atmosphere and attempt an audacious landing on the red planet that involves a rocket-propelled sky crane platform to deliver the rover to the Martian surface. The rover’s mission will involve — in addition to a helicopter to survey the surrounding area, plus a whole suite of instrumentation — a plan to gather soil specimens that will, if all goes well, be returned to Earth in a plan called the Mars Sample Return. Perseverance has 43 sample tubes the size of a cigar, 38 of which will hold bits of Mars’ surface and atmosphere until after 2026, when a Sample Retrieval Lander will be launched with the plan to grab the samples, stow them and bring them back to Earth for study sometime in 2031.

Leonard David, Scientific American

Californians

Rising housing costs are contagious, as people who live in areas with extremely high housing costs who decide to move out to places with lower housing costs in doing so increase the housing costs in the area to which they move. This is a point of contention in many states in the American West, as the pandemic and opportunities for remote work push many from the pricey markets in California to lovely cities like Boise, Denver and Austin. According to a Redfin study, the average budget for an out-of-town home buyer moving to Boise is $738,000, which is 50 percent higher than the average $494,000 budget of a local. That asymmetry is also seen in Nashville (50 percent higher budget for out-of-town buyers), Austin (32 percent), Denver (26 percent) and Phoenix (23 percent). Gosh, I know it’s impossible to conceive, but if only there were some sort of way that cities could add to their housing, like some sort of way to “build new houses” or “change the zoning to increase residential density by allowing multi-family homes” or some arcane magic like that.

Conor Dougherty, The New York Times

Meat

Roughly 50 plants are responsible for processing 98 percent of the cattle in the United States, and those 50 plants are predominately owned by just four companies — Tyson Foods, JBS SA, Cargill and National Beef Packing Co. — that collectively control 73 percent of the market. This consolidation can sometimes be good for consumers — the economies of scale keep prices down — but as seen last year, consolidation is a serious structural problem that can have ramifications across the industry. The closure of just 12 plants last April shut down 25 percent of American pork processing and 10 percent of beef processing. The reason for the consolidation is in part due to the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, which added considerable red tape in the interest of meat safety but squeezed little guys out of the market, with the 9,267 livestock slaughterhouses in 1967 down 70 percent since.

Adam Minter, Bloomberg

Soil

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used satellite imagery to analyze the soil quality of hundreds of millions of acres of the Corn Belt in the Midwest, and argues that the USDA has significantly underestimated farmland erosion. The paper argues that close to a third of the Corn Belt, or 100 million acres, has no remaining A-horizon soil which is the top bit of soil that has lots of organic matter in it. The estimated impact of this degradation of soil quality is corn and soybean yields have been reduced by 6 percent, and an estimated 1.5 petagrams of carbon has been stripped out of the soil by erosion caused by conventional agricultural practices.

Shiera D. Goff, University of Massachusetts Amherst

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