Numlock News: January 31, 2020 • Chatbots, Scotxit, Radon

By Walt Hickey

Have an excellent weekend! Check out the Numlock Awards Supplement for some pre-Oscars forecasts and coverage, and the Book Club is voting on the next few books right now if you want to hop on.


Google has unleashed a new chatbot called Meena that was trained on 341 gigabytes of social media conversation, meaning that I can assume it has a veritable ocean of cringe-worthy customer service complaints, terrible film opinions and jarring sexual depravities just gushing underneath the hood. The creators also designed a new metric called the Sensibleness and Specificity Average, which measures how well a bot can carry on a conversation. Human conversation comes in at around 86 percent, Mitsuku, the current state-of-the-art chatbot, scored 56 percent, but Google says Meena scored a 79 percent. The company says it will not release a demo of Meena until after they’ve “vetted the model for safety and bias,” which is definitely programmer speak for “the robot keeps asking to see pictures of my feet and has far too many opinions about My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic to release.”

Douglas Heaven, MIT Technology Review

Flipping Land

The U.S. government plans to sell $750 million worth of property amid a planned consolidation of its real estate holdings. All told, the feds own 885 million square feet of real estate in the U.S., which costs about $8 billion annually to maintain. Based on an analysis, in 2018 there were 3,817 buildings that were defunct or underused out of a total of 57,840. The properties up for sale include the sunny Southwest Fisheries Sciences Center in beachside Monterey, California. A prime property is the 17-acre campus of the GSA in pricey Menlo Park in Silicon Valley; at the going rate of $638 per square foot, the property could be worth $263 million. Presumably much of the property is going for sale after a stinging rebuke from the Canadians following the Department of Commerce’s overtures of “let’s do a Trading Spaces thing, it’ll be hilarious.”

Sarah Paynter, Yahoo Finance


Amazon, a popular bookstore, announced earnings yesterday, pretty much smashing expectations for the holiday season with a 21 percent year over year quarterly sales increase to $87.4 billion. That’s well above analyst projections of $86.2 billion. The company further announced that there were now 150 million Amazon Prime subscribers, up from 100 million in 2018. The stock had closed at $1,870.68 on Thursday, but in short order rose 12 percent to $2,103.44. For perspective, that increase added $110 billion to the market value of the company over the course of several minutes. By comparison, UPS’s entire market cap is $93 billion.

Jeremy R Cooke, Bloomberg, Spencer Soper, Bloomberg


In 2013, the state of Utah launched an ambitious promotional campaign gunning for tourism dollars centered on its gorgeous national park land, and boy did it work: visitors to the five national parks in Utah increased 12 percent in 2014, 14 percent in 2015, and then 20 percent in 2016. The number of park visitors jumped from 6.3 million to 10 million in three years, and the state’s return on investment for the campaign was $338 to $1. This was actually an issue, as overcrowding led to dire conditions at some of the parks. A Utah State University study attributed 500,000 annual visitors a year to the ad campaign. The state, fearing over-tourism and huge lines at the “Mighty Five,” tweaked the campaign to begin highlighting state parks, spreading the load.

Mark Sundeen, Outside


Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants to hold a new plebiscite later this year on a Scottish independence referendum, arguing that the situation in the United Kingdom has materially changed compared to the last referendum as a result of Brexit. Members of Scottish Parliament voted 64 to 54 that a referendum should be held, though it would be a non-binding vote. Scotland voted 62 percent in favor of remaining in the European Union. Wouldn’t that just be nuts, a separatist movement from a northern region you had counted on as a critical member of a union? Who could have ever foreseen such things.



The $13 billion USS Gerald R. Ford — the most expensive aircraft-carrying war ship in the history of aircraft, war, and ships — flunked three tests aimed at evaluating its defensive capabilities, particularly with its radar, electronic warfare defense system and ship-to-ship communications network. This is the latest in a string of issues with the ship. Another has been problems with 11 advanced weapons elevators, namely that they only actually installed four of them. Another problem is that the vessel has capacity for 4,660 sailors, roughly 1,000 less than the Nimitz-class carriers. However, a recent estimate of expected manning is as high as 4,758 sailors, so, you know, pack some swimmies.

Anthony Capaccio, Bloomberg


Despite having the lowest smoking rate in the country, in Utah lung cancer still kills more people than any other cancer. One possible reason is radon, an odorless gas that is a natural result of uranium decay in soil. Something like 320,000 Utah homes — that’s one in three of them — have dangerous levels of radon, and seven of the state’s counties are high-risk for elevated indoor radon levels, however the state has no laws or regulations for radon testing. A survey of the state found that half of respondents didn’t know lung cancer was a possible consequence of radon exposure, and 80 percent said they hadn’t tested their homes for radon according to the health department.

Sara Israelsen-Hartley, Deseret News

Thanks to the paid subscribers to Numlock News who make this possible. Subscribers guarantee this stays ad-free, and get a special Sunday edition. Consider becoming a full subscriber today.

Now when you tell a friend to sign up for Numlock, you’ll get some free Numlock stickers and magnets if you go to It’s a great way to reach new readers organically.

Thank you so much for subscribing! If you're enjoying the newsletter, forward it to someone you think may enjoy it too! Send links to me on Twitter at @WaltHickey or email me with numbers, tips, or feedback at Send corrections or typos to the copy desk at

The very best way to reach new readers is word of mouth. If you click THIS LINK in your inbox, it’ll create an easy-to-send pre-written email you can just fire off to some friends.

2020 Sunday special editions: Minimalism · Ghost Gear · Tech jobs · Directors

2019 Sunday special editions: 2019 · TI-84 · Heated · Hemp · Kylie Cosmetics · Secondhand · Biometrics · Voting Machines · Open Borders ·  WrestleMania ·  Game of Thrones ·  Concussion Snake Oil ·  Skyglow ·  Juul ·  Chris Ingraham ·  Invasive Species ·  The Rat Spill ·  
The Sterling Affairs ·  Snakebites ·  Bees ·  Deep Fakes ·  Artificial Intelligence ·  Marijuana ·  Mussels · 100% Renewable Grid ·  Drive Thru Dreams ·  Department Stores & Champion ·  Baltimore Crab Shacks ·  Kylie Jenner · Amber Fossils ·  Self-Improvement ·  Box Office Forecasting ·  Crazy/Genius ·  Scrubbers ·  Saving the World ·  Summer Movies ·  No One Man Should Have All That Power ·  Film Incentives ·  Stadiums & Casinos ·  Late Night ·  65 is the new 50 ·  Scooternomics ·  Gene Therapy ·  SESTA/FOSTA ·  CAPTCHA ·  New Zealand ·  Good To Go ·  California Football ·  Personality Testing ·  China’s Corruption Crackdown ·  Yosemite
2018 Sunday Editions:2018  ·  Game of Thrones  ·  Signal Problems · CTE and Football · Facebook · Shark Repellent · Movies · Voting Rights · Goats · Invitation Only · Fat Bear Week · Weinersmith · Airplane Bathrooms ·  NIMBYs ·  Fall 2018 Sports Analytics ·  The Media  ·  Omega-3  ·  Mattress Troubles  ·  Conspiracy Theorists  ·  Beaches  ·  Bubbles  ·  NYC Trash  ·  Fish Wars  ·  Women’s Jeans  ·  Video Stores