Numlock News: February 5, 2021 • Seals, Bills, Advice

By Walt Hickey

Have a great weekend!

Loose Seals

New research finds that seals in the Southern Ocean have significantly more nuanced ways of communicating than particularly understood, thanks to the installation of an audio and video livestream at McMurdo Station in 2017. Ultrasonic frequencies of over 200 kilohertz were observed among the pitches above the 20 kilohertz limit of human hearing. In the ‘70s, researchers caught the seals chit-chatting at 30 kilohertz, but the new equipment finds that the mammals spend a significant amount of time at the upper pitches, with 17 percent of all Weddell seal calls being ultrasonic over the two-year observation period. The seals were found to use the ultrasonic range more often in winter, suggesting that the months of complete darkness may push them to rely on the ultrasonic sound for a very basic kind of echolocation. However, have they considered that ultrasonic is the only way to correctly pronounce the sentence, “damn Frank, it’s hella cold today” in seal?

Liz Allen, Scientific American


In what certainly must be the single most-promoted concert I have ever seen, The Weeknd will be performing at the Super Bowl halftime show this Sunday. The halftime show is a chance for the NFL to appeal to viewers who aren’t fans of the sport, and to that end The Weeknd will probably do okay, at best. A late-January survey of 2,200 adults found that 29 percent of Americans are fans of both the NFL and The Weeknd, with 45 percent of NFL fans saying they were fans of The Weeknd and 75 percent of Weeknd fans enjoying the NFL. The choice makes sense for the league given the singer’s fanbase, with 54 percent of Gen Z and 61 percent of Millennial respondents having a favorable opinion of him. In terms of trying to crassly appeal to younger fans, it sure beats that incomprehensibly weird attempt to nod to an episode of SpongeBob from two years ago.

Sarah Shevenock, Morning Consult


In 2016, over 70 percent of colleges and universities in the United Kingdom were using lecture recording systems. Two years later, when the University and College Union organized a strike in response to pension cuts, some universities threatened to keep classes running by airing prerecorded lectures. The backlash to that was immediate, and as a result, a number of universities began permanently changing their policies on using recorded lectures. Today, with classes heading online, many teachers worry that the videos they make to teach students will one day be used to do away with their positions. The fear is hardly without grounds: Concordia University had an online history course that apparently was taught by a professor who was dead for a year without actually telling students that their course was recordings of a deceased man. Further, lots of universities say that they own the IP and materials of lectures. On the other hand, don’t worry, we have the integrity and good-faith benevolence of university administrations and their willingness to invest in staff to rely on!

Monica Chin, The Verge


We kind of killed the flu? Around the world, other respiratory viruses that are not coronavirus have quietly dissipated, as the social distancing, mask use and hygienic practices implemented to combat the pandemic have nearly completely wiped out many typical annual respiratory pathogens. According to the CDC, about 800,000 lab samples have been tested in the United States for the flu, and only about 1,500 have tested positive, or 0.2 percent. Last year there were about 100 times as many cases from the same number of tests, and positivity rates peaked north of 25 percent. Naturally, we’re not out of the woods yet, but a lack of a serious flu outbreaks is outstanding news for the health care response and, frankly, a great argument for using masks in winter.

Katherine J. Wu, The Atlantic


Birds are having a rougher time surviving in the increasingly hot Mojave Desert, especially compared to mammals, according to a new study. When humans overheat, we sweat, but birds can’t, so they pant, which leads to lots of water loss. This means that Mojave birds need 3.3 times as much water to keep cool as mammals, according to the study, and climate change is making it harder to survive. Mammals’ cooling costs have increased by 17.4 percent, while for birds the energy they must expend to get the resources they need to keep cool is up 58.5 percent, meaning that for instance an American Kestrel would need to catch 15 to 20 more grasshoppers per day to compensate for the water loss. As a result, we’ve seen a 42 percent decline in bird diversity across the Mojave over the past century.

Hannah Waters, Audubon


Last year saw home energy use rise, with residential electricity use estimated to be up 10 percent on average from April to July 2020. The issue is that a lot of the people who were stuck at home also lost their income, and as a result owed more money than they possessed, so to stem this tide 34 states in March ordered mandatory moratoriums on utility shutoffs. Since then, conditions have recovered somewhat, and the moratoriums have largely ended: by October just 16 states and Washington D.C. had active utility shutoff moratoriums in place, though that did cover 40 percent of the population. A new working paper finds that had there been a nationwide moratorium on utility shutoffs from March to November, Covid-19 infections could have been reduced by 8.7 percent, as more people could have remained in their homes rather than being forced to go out or stay with relatives during a surging pandemic. The 34 moratoriums that did happen saved lives, according to the paper, reducing infections by 4 percent and mortality rates by 7.4 percent.

Rachel M Cohen, CityLab


McKinsey & Company reached a $573 million settlement with 47 states and Washington D.C. over that time they allegedly helped the maker of OxyContin “turbocharge” sales of the highly addictive opioid, paving a swath of personal and economic destruction across the United States and leading to a deadly epidemic that has claimed 450,000 lives over two decades and caused serious lasting damage to untold more. Records show McKinsey helped Purdue Pharmaceuticals sell higher-dose pills even after Purdue pleaded guilty to misleading doctors about the risks of the pill, and offered assistance in getting the pesky FDA off their back. McKinsey will not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement, but agreed to restrictions on its future work with addictive narcotics. The states will use the penalties for the opioid treatment, prevention and recovery programs created in response to McKinsey’s successful advice. The suit doesn’t bar local governments from suing either. McKinsey insists that its past work was lawful, but then again so is using the court system to squeeze a blue-chip consultancy in order to compensate for an epidemic they’re arguably partly responsible for.

Michael Forsythe and Walt Bogdanich, The New York Times.

This past weekend for the Sunday edition I spoke to Emily Atkin who wrote “The conservative climate fear-mongering begins” for her newsletter HEATED. We talked about what the pipeline fight is all about, the material impact on jobs, and more. Emily can be found at her exceptional newsletter HEATED, and she’s also on Twitter @emorwee.

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