Numlock News: September 23, 2021 • Gilgamesh, Micronesia, Scams

By Walt Hickey


The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet — a 3,500-year-old clay tablet looted from Iraq 30 years ago, hawked to a London antiquities dealer in 2001 — sold to Hobby Lobby in 2014 and seized by U.S. authorities in 2019 is going home. The tablet, which essentially tells part of the story of the first buddy cop franchise, is one of 17,000 looted items that the U.S. is sending back to Iraq after a first delivery back in July. The tablet is related to a 2017 case in which Hobby Lobby, whose owners also founded the Museum of the Bible, agreed to pay a $3 million fine and return thousands of items that had been stolen and purchased to include in the museum.

James Doubek, NPR


A team of engineers out of Northwestern University have developed small little airborne electronic sensors that glide gently though air and could be used for future environmental monitoring. Riffing on the structures of wind-enabled seeds from nature, the fliers range in size from 0.4 millimeters to 40 millimeters and are optimized to have the most hang time. The best one of them moves at a languid maximum speed of 28 centimeters per second, which is really good when you consider the terminal velocity of a snowflake is 250 centimeters per second, and the fluttery helicoptering seeds of the ant tree fall at 75 centimeters per second.

James Vincent, The Verge


A new study from Pew Research Center found 23 percent of Americans said they hadn’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, including print, digital and audiobooks. The non-readers have a few things in common: 26 percent of men versus 21 percent of women haven’t read a book in the past year, and whether or not someone went to college has a big impact, as does where they live: 18 percent of urbanites versus 25 percent of suburbanites versus 29 percent of rural residents didn’t read any books. An interesting component is that younger adults —with their dang TikTok and their internet and their distractions and avocado toast and their awful attention spans — were in fact considerably more likely to have read one book than older respondents, with 28 percent of those 50 and up forgoing books compared to just 19 percent of those 18 to 49. Overall, 23 percent didn’t read a book, 5 percent read one, 25 percent read two to five books, 15 percent read six to 10 books, 11 percent read 11 to 20 books and 18 percent of people said they read more than 20 books, which is the highest that figure has been since Pew first polled it in 2011.

Risa Gelles-Watnick and Andrew Perrin, Pew Research Center


Facebook’s Marketplace has become a hotbed of scammers, in part because scammers flock to any online marketplace and Facebook’s is now the big one. Back in 2019, 6 percent of respondents to a survey said they’d made a purchase on Marketplace, a figure that by 2021 has hit 14 percent. By comparison, that figure was 6 percent in 2021 for Craigslist, previously the home of peer-to-peer online goods exchange. Facebook has 400 workers employed by Accenture monitoring the service to back up the AI system that they use to identify and thwart scammers. To get a sense of how that’s going, those workers reportedly have to handle about 600 complaints per day each.

Craig Silverman, A.C. Thompson and Peter Elkind, ProPublica

Shifting Sands

Two studies looking at how islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Gilbert Islands have changed amid sea level rise found that among 175 sparsely populated or uninhabited islands, while lots of them have shrunk, lots of them have also expanded since the 1940s. Micronesia increased its land area by approximately 3 percent since the ‘40s and the Gilberts are 2.45 percent larger. It clarifies the simplistic idea that all islands are all just going to be sucked under amid sea level rise, which is true in many cases but misses the reality that the complex relationship between tides and waves and surges makes things more complicated to forecast than water go up, island sinks down.

J. Besl, Hakai Magazine


A new report from the Department of Health and Human Services identified two tricks used by insurance companies that led to some $9.2 billion in federal payments in the course of a year. The billing strategies — one where insurers review charts for diagnoses that doctors didn’t actually flag, another involving vendor-administered health risk assessments — are controversial, but both are allowed under Medicare. The main thing is the report identified a few insurers who seem to be really milking them: just 20 companies that represent 31 percent of Medicare Advantage enrollment accounted for 54 percent of that $9.2 billion, while the 142 companies that cover the other 69 percent got the rest. Indeed, one company alone — unnamed — generated 58 percent of the payments drawn from health-risk assessments.

Anna Wilde Mathews, The Wall Street Journal


About 80 percent of Alaska’s communities can’t be accessed by road, and planes are an essential part of daily life for many. This is one reason Alaska is a comparatively dangerous place to fly, accounting for 42 percent of the country’s fatalities in commuter, air taxi and charter flights since 2016. One study identified Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast systems (ADS-B) as a solution after testing them on 388 aircraft from 1999 to 2006 and seeing a decline in crash rates, but they’re not cheap, and they’re not required in most of Alaska. A full ADS-B unit from Garmin goes for $5,395, and a partial unit that only broadcasts location goes for $1,795.

Zoë Sobel, KUCB, and Agnel Philip, ProPublica

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