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Josie Ford

Recycling maths

Feedback has never been a fan of shopping, especially the type that involves passive-aggressive web formulas informing us of an invalid input before we have finished typing.

The UK’s continuing lockdown has, however, given us a renewed appreciation of our local shopping precinct, devoid as it is of people and actual shops to go into. Caught there in an eddy of pavement social distancing arrows without an apparent route of escape, we are brought up short in front of an excitable hoarding over a shop that is being recycled. Adorned with adorable cartoon pictures of marine life, it is the pinnacle, we find, of our confusion surrounding measurement units in recent weeks, as it declares:

“We recycle the weight of a KILLER WHALE in plastic EVERY YEAR.”

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“We turn mixed waste into fuel. Enough to power 135 TV’s for a year!”

“We recycle the weight of TWO BLUE WHALES EVERY YEAR”

“We recycle the weight of 550 SEA TURTLES in cardboard EVERY YEAR”

A pen and paper, if you will. Assuming standard blue whale, orca and sea turtle weights: (a) How much more cardboard than plastic is recycled by weight? (b) What proportion of the total waste recycled is cardboard? (c) Assuming standard calorific values, what is the average power output of a TV in kilowhales?

Answers on a hoarding, please.

That’s the problem

Meanwhile, we are going back inside, where we find John Davies has written to us to take issue with the subject line of a New Scientist daily newsletter on 10 February: “‘Extremely unlikely’ virus came from lab, says WHO team”. The interpretation that SARS-CoV-2 was an extremely unlikely virus that came from a lab was probably not the intended one, he suggests.

Pending radical new insights, we are happy to confirm this, and rummage around in our hamper of spares for the missing “that”.

Drifting off

More upliftingly, Ivan Watson writes from Melbourne – the Australian one, we presume, although apologies to any readers in Derbyshire, UK, tired of that presumption – with what he describes as his “inaugural contribution” to Feedback.

Presumptuous yourself, Ivan – but you are very welcome. We, too, are excited by the newspaper advert for a bed base with a “zero gravity” setting, also offering “anti-snore preset positions”. Presumably, Ivan suggests, the sleeper can be preset to float on their front above the bed.

Due diligence reveals that anti-gravity is a Thing in the Land of Nod – indeed, choose the right bed and this can be combined with the equally physically startling “infinite positions for head and foot”.

Sadly, though, on the models we have seen, zero-gravity and anti-snore are mutually exclusive alternative settings. Which perhaps isn’t such a problem: in space, after all, no one can hear you snore.

Extensive piles

Our intention to erect a hoarding a considerable fraction the size of Wales over the units issue is holed by The Guardian newspaper’s decision to express a mass of sea cucumber excrement in terms of multiples of the Eiffel Tower.

We have no idea, either. To return to the more accepted use of the Eiffel Tower as a unit of height, thanks to the approximately 0.15 Eiffel Towers of you who sent that one in.

Shoots, leaves and eats

The entry “Holothurians, excretory peculiarities of” in our own extensive piling system contains sadly just one item, a 2013 entry on our esteemed website concerning the giant California sea cucumber Apostichopus californicus. In its regular, largely unhappy, encounters with its predator, the sunflower seastar (Pycnopodia helianthoides), we reported that it sometimes “squirts its digestive system out of its anus in a tangled, sticky mess, confusing the seastar and allowing it to get away”. Thus deprived of a digestive system, it proceeds, with admirable fortitude, to switch to eating through its anus. We are sure that you are glad we checked.

Taste and decency

We include that nugget among other reasons to convince you that we aren’t – yet – an AI. Just weeks after preventing people in Plymouth, UK, from offending public morals by mentioning local landmark Plymouth Hoe, and following an instance last year of a picture of onions being deemed overly suggestive (7 November 2020), Facebook – or rather, we suspect, its artificially unintelligent algorithms – is at it again.

BBC News reports that the site blocked multiple images from the owner of a digital photo gallery in the UK. Among those falling foul of the malgorithms are shots of a high-rise building and the England cricket team in a huddle (both apparently overtly sexual), a neon sign saying “disco” (promoting alcohol), ripples on a pond (selling adult products), some cows in a field (overtly sexual again) and “a set of tramlines in Reims, France, which Facebook said went against its ticket sales policy”.

A good night out, a sporting occasion, a wholesome country walk, a relaxing city break – honestly, even if we could go further than the local shopping precinct, we couldn’t take an AI anywhere.

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