Numlock News: November 23, 2020 • Felonies, Batteries, Varieties

By Walt Hickey

Welcome back!


The bottom would appear to be falling out in the U.S. box office, with the number one movie at the cinemas — Freaky, a Vince Vaughn body swap campy horror flick — making $1.2 million, down 66 percent from its opening last weekend and one of the lowest top-grossing films in history. Contributing to this decline is not only the lack of big studio draws to the cinema (remember when the new Bond movie was going to come out next weekend?) but increasing cinema closures amid a surge in the pandemic. Last week, 646 movie theaters in the United States and 60 in Canada shut down, or roughly 11 percent of the total theaters in North America. That brings the total number of open movie theaters in North America to 2,154 out of the 5,449 locations, down from 2,800 locations a week ago.

Pamela McClintock, The Hollywood Reporter


The alleged architect of what authorities claim is a $35 million Ponzi scheme embarked on a daring run from the F.B.I. when the law enforcement officers attempted to apprehend him in California. The Department of Justice has charged Matthew Piercey with 31 felonies, including “wire fraud, mail fraud, witness tampering and money laundering.” After driving to Shasta Lake, a reservoir, law enforcement said that Piercey went into the water with a Yamaha 350Li underwater sea scooter, basically a propeller that can haul a human 4 miles per hour underwater, only to be captured less than a half hour later. Anyway, if anyone has Scorsese’s number please let me know, I think I’ve got something great here.

John Ismay, The New York Times


OneWeb is a company that entered into bankruptcy protection just after getting 74 satellites into orbit, advancing a plan for a 648-satellite constellation to provide internet networking services without the use of a wired connection. The company formally transferred ownership to a joint venture between Indian conglomerate Bharti Global and the government of the United Kingdom, and so they’re back in action. Next up: 36 satellites that have been sent from their factory in Florida to Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia are slated for a launch on a Soyuz rocket in mid-December. The new backers each put up a half-billion, and the final constellation will probably require around $2 billion to $2.5 billion to complete.

Jonathan Amos, BBC


One impact on retail that stems in part from the pandemic is a new streamlining of options on sale. At the onset of lockdowns many retailers cancelled factory orders ahead of closures, but now many are cutting back on the variety of options available. Coach usually produces 1,000 handbag models each season, but now is only making 500. Studies show that while consumers like options, more choices can instead lead to fewer sales: a classic 2000 study found that when shown 24 types of jam, 3 percent of consumers made a purchase, but when shown just six types, the purchase rate rose to 30 percent. Bed Bath & Beyond saw can opener sales increase 30 percent after cutting some styles, part of a larger inventory cut amid a store redesign. Part of this is cyclical: in 2011, Walmart added 8,500 items it had culled back after notching a drop in sales, but still removed 2,500 items in a 2015 streamlining.

Suzanne Kapner, The Wall Street Journal

Wild Ride

While companies in the culture business have across the board taken a hit to revenue streams, theme park operators are responsible for lots of the red ink of 2020. Disney’s Parks division saw its revenue in the first three quarters fall 53.1 percent year over year, NBC Universal’s theme parks saw a 71 percent drop, and other less diversified companies in the amusement parks industry had even worse years: SeaWorld’s revenue was down 74.7 percent, Six Flags’ revenue was down 79.8 percent, and Cedar Fair’s business was down 87.9 percent.

Heidi Chung, Variety

Horseshoe Crabs

The blood of horseshoe crabs is the natural source of limulus amebocyte lysate, which is used by pharmaceutical companies to test injected drugs — you know, like a vaccine for a coronavirus — for bacterial contamination. Normally, the companies do an estimated 70 million tests annually, and 2020 ain’t normal, so the crabs are being bled to a degree that has conservationists worried. This is with pretty good reason: taking some blood leads to an increase in death among bled crabs, with 5 to 30 percent dying after being released back into their habitat, and research suggests that those that do make a donation to science don’t produce as many eggs. In the Delaware Bay, there were 50,000 horseshoe crab eggs per square meter in the 1980s and 1990s, though today that figure stands at 8,000 horseshoe crab eggs per square meter. This has reverberations beyond the crabs, and also impacts the shorebirds that live off them: according to the biologists who study them, the population of Red Knots fell from 100,000 in the ‘90s to 12,000 today, prompting the Fish and Wildlife Service to mark them as threatened a few years ago.

Neel Dhanesha, Audubon Magazine


New research out of the University of California San Diego offers an alternative way to recycle lithium-iron-phosphate batteries, which are the kind that are used in electric vehicles and the installations for power storage along a renewable energy grid. Basically, keeping these batteries in useful service — and renewing them when they lose a substantial amount of their capacity — is a big priority, and so far there have been a few solutions. A hydrometallurgical process where the material is dissolved, separated chemically and reconstituted as a new battery runs at a net loss of $1.40 per kilogram. A pyrometallurgial process (which melts them down and separates them) costs $2.60 per kilogram. The new direct process described — where the material is bathed in a heated lithium solution, then dried and then heated — not only used 80 percent to 90 percent less energy, but also lets the rejuvenation process run at a profit to the tune of $1 per kilogram. Were this scaled up commercially as the designers envision, it’d reduce the need for lithium mining and enable profitable recycling in the battery tech space.

Scott K. Johnson, Ars Technica

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