Numlock News: November 17, 2020 • Arecibo, Universal, Iota

By Walt Hickey

Arecibo

The iconic Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has had a rough few weeks, and the enormous cables that are holding the largest single-dish radio telescope up are now slowly unraveling. The 1,000-foot dish is held up by cables that have been breaking and damaging the instrument: in August, a cable broke that tore a 100-foot hole in the reflector dish, and just last week, a cable designed to hold 1.2 million pounds snapped under just 624,000 pounds of weight, further damaging the dish. Some new cables are slated to arrive next month, but funding is unclear and time is literally running out, as the 900-ton platform is held up by a few cables and the damage requires $12 million in repairs from the National Science Foundation.

Dánica Coto, The Associated Press

Empties

In September, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles exported 553,952 empty containers, which followed an August where they exported 548,021 empties and a July in which they exported 510,511 empties. The fervency with which the West Coast has been exporting dust and air is a reaction to the huge swathes of imports coming in, but is also causing problems inland as people who need containers to get their stuff from the middle of the country out to ports are hard up for boxes. Freight rates from China to the West Coast are north of $4,000 per container, while the average price to ship a container from L.A. to Shanghai is $518. That incentive has firms shipping back empty boxes rather than waiting for the containers to make their way inland and back out. In general, things are busy in ports, with the 2.11 million containers moved in major American ports in September up 12.5 percent over the same time a year ago as well as the busiest month on record back to 2002.

Costas Paris, The Wall Street Journal

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Iota

The 30th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, Iota, has rapidly intensified ahead of landfall on Nicaragua. The 2005 record for most annual named storms was tied back with Eta, the 28th storm, so we’re already in uncharted territory here, but what’s particularly interesting about Iota and eight other storms this year is that they have passed a fairly new threshold set for “rapid intensification.” This year, nine storms rapidly intensified. A storm is said to rapidly intensify when it gains more than 35 miles per hour in wind speed in 24 hours. Iota doubled that.

Marlon González, Seth Borenstein and Christopher Sherman, The Associated Press

Universal

Cinemark, the second-largest cinema chain in North America, has cut a deal with Universal Pictures that will allow Universal to put out a theatrically-released film in cinemas and then make it available in American homes as soon as 17 days later, a huge cut from the roughly 90 day exclusive theatrical window that cinemas and studios had operated under for years. Furthermore, movies that opened with over $50 million would be exclusive to theaters for at least five weekends. Universal cut a similar deal with AMC, the largest cinema chain, a deal which involved AMC getting a cut of the premium video on demand pie, though financial details with Cinemark were not disclosed.

Lisa Richwine, Reuters

Students

Even before COVID-19, American universities were hit with the largest enrollment drop from international students in 16 years, with attendance from students from abroad dropping to 1.08 million, down 1.8 percent in the 2019-20 school year. That’s according to the Institute of International Education, and, even pre-pandemic, it was the third-largest drop in the 70-year history of the report. Next year’s report about this term will doubtless show a major dip, as early data from the National Clearinghouse Research Center saw undergrad enrollment decline 15 percent, though the reason there is a little more obvious. Besides providing a global talent pool for the U.S. education system, international students are an important financial driver for American universities.

Janet Lorin, Bloomberg

Flooding

Lots of low-lying, mid-latitude coastal cities are prone to flooding during high astronomical tides, the moments when the location of the moon and the gravitational work it exacts on the tides means that there’s a particularly high one. As sea levels rise, these are getting a little more annoying, and forecasting them is a pretty helpful thing in cities like Norfolk, Virginia. There, hydrologists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science designed a project that enlisted locals with a smartphone app to track the “king tides.” Then they applied that data collected by hundreds of volunteers towards a flood model that can predict water levels within 15 centimeters 90 percent of the time. Today, the TideWatch program can provide a tide forecast up to 36 hours in advance, with a goal of 72 hours notice.

Carrie Arnold, Knowable Magazine

Smoking

Every year, sales of cigarettes in the U.S. decline by 3 to 4 percent, a trend that has held steady since the 1980s. Last year, that trend began to accelerate with sales declining by 7 percent, a decline attributed to the rise of electronic cigarettes and vapes rolled out by major players in the tobacco scene. Altria predicted that this year sales of cigarettes would decline 4 to 6 percent. However, some stuff happened that you are probably familiar with, and as of July the projection was scaled back and cigarette sales were projected to decline by only 2 to 3 percent. This is a little bit weird because at first glance one would think a pandemic that afflicts the lungs is hardly an endorsement for tobacco usage, but the working understanding is that the increased downtime, stress and boredom that accompanied lockdowns and the decline of social life made people turn back to smokes, which are historically used to fill downtime, address stress and do something while bored.

Melinda Fakuade, Vox

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