Numlock News: December 4, 2020 • Dune, Daphnia, Deck The Halls

By Walt Hickey

Have a great weekend!

Sports

A few months ago there were no sports on television channels that cost a lot of money to subscribe to that had previously aired a whole lot of sports. Even when eventually there were some sports, the abridged nature of the packages and slimmed-down nature of the offerings had many wondering why they were paying a ton of money for sports that were, at the time, impossible. Well, the insurance has kicked in, the RSN fees are tallied, and the rebate is in: pay television providers will rebate something like $1.1 billion back to customers that had paid for regional sports networks. Charter has said it’ll credit $218 million back to its customers, Verizon has notified its customers a rebate is incoming, and AT&T has said a courtesy adjustment is coming if people were paying for sports from April to July. This isn’t going to be colossal — the average Charter subscriber will get $14 — but it’s something.

Scott Moritz and Gerry Smith, Bloomberg

Well, Crap

As the finances make large numbers of individual oil wells fiscally untenable and threaten the balance sheets of the companies that now maintain them, an ongoing crisis of abandoned oil and gas wells is poised to get a lot worse. In Oklahoma, the agency that regulates the oil and gas business has a list of 12,000 “orphaned” wells, or holes in the ground that have been abandoned by an owner who may very well not exist, or no longer possess the money to plug it. Plugging that to-do list is not exactly making a lot of headway — wells can continue to leak methane despite no longer producing oil, which is environmentally devastating — and right now, the state just has 800 plugging projects open. Last year, it plugged a mere 138 abandoned wells, so it’s going badly. Across the country there were 50,000 wells on cleanup lists in 2018, and the true estimated figure for abandoned wells is between 200,000 and 750,000. Including idle wells, the count is about 2.1 million.

Emily Pontecorvo, Grist

Movies

Warner Bros. announced its intentions for film releases in 2021, shattering the norms and typical distribution practices of the movie business and firing a shot across the bow of movie theaters. The deal sees movies releasing directly to sibling streamer HBO Max for 31 days as the films are released in U.S. cinemas, following which they’ll exit the streaming platform and go to video on demand and DVD. While it’s billed as a one-year plan and executives insist it’s not intended to continue into 2022, it’s an aggressive move against the struggling exhibition business. To get the cinemas on board, they’re offering them 60 percent of ticket revenue rather than the typical split for the 17 films slated in 2021. At least you’ll be able to watch the film Dune the same way we all read the book Dune, alone in our bedrooms on a Friday night while avoiding making plans to meet up and do things with other people.

Rebecca Rubin and Matt Donnelly, Variety

Deck The Halls

Sales of Christmas and holiday decorations are up substantially this year as people prepare for scaled-back holidays where they spend more of the time in the lead up in their own homes than out and about. A holiday merchant at Ace Hardware said holiday lighting sales are up 45 percent year over year, wreath and garland sales are up 42 percent, and its online sales are up about 30 percent for the year. That it’s incredibly Instagrammable doesn’t exactly hurt either. Listen, the last time I had a serious holiday light installation in my own apartment was in college and it remained up until June.

Jolie Kerr, Vox

Daphnia

There are about 100 species of freshwater Daphnia, which are tiny little crustaceans that eat algae and form the bottom part of the animal bit of the food chain — fundamental organisms in the health of lakes. There is an issue in the Great Lakes region, though, as the Daphnia are dying out, hunted to death by the invasive spiny water flea, a half-inch long crustacean with a barbed tail from Lake Ladoga in Russia. It hitched a ride in the ballast water of ships in European ports that was later discharged in the St. Lawrence River, making it to Lake Ontario in the 1980s and by ‘87 hitting Lake Superior. As a result, populations of the indigenous plankton in Minnesota’s lakes is down by as much as 60 percent, which in turn has affected fish populations.

Tim Folger, National Geographic

Fences

In the American West, you’re never too far from a fence. A new study estimated that at any given point, the nearest distance to any fence is usually less than 31 miles, and on average is roughly 2 miles. It’s estimated that the global length of fencing on Earth is 10 times the length of roads. Fences have unexpected impacts on ecology. For example, migrating pronghorn antelope have difficulty navigating the fences crisscrossing once traversable expanses, and fences that have long since outlived their usefulness have similar effects despite their vestigial use for landowners. Indeed, there is a serious issue for some species with “ghost fences,” which are when you remove a fence that has existed in a place for a long time but species continue on for generations avoiding a place because there used to be a fence there, because animals are weird and we kind of broke them with fences.

Alex McInturff, Christine Wilkinson and Wenjing Xu, The Conversation

Aftermarket

Many jerks enjoy installing non-standard exhaust pipes on diesel vehicles to make extra pollution for fun, a subculture known as rolling coal. According to the EPA Air Enforcement Division, an estimated 550,000 medium trucks have had their emissions controls deliberately removed entirely over the past decade, which is something like 15 percent of the class 2b and class 3 diesel trucks on the road. The report indicates that 570,000 tons of excess NOx and 5,000 tons of excess diesel particulates are emitted over the life of the noncompliant trucks, which is roughly equivalent to what 9 million normal diesel pickup trucks would do. Approximately 18.6 percent of the diesel trucks in North Dakota have been tampered with in this manner, according to the EPA.

Jonathan M. Gitlin, Ars Technica

This past Sunday, I spoke to Kim Bhasin of Bloomberg News who was reporting live on the ground on a bleaker Black Friday. Kim can be found at Bloomberg News, in Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine, and Bloomberg TV. He’s on Twitter at @KimBhasin.

We’ve got three great interviews coming to round out 2020, thanks so much to all the paid subscribers for supporting the newsletter. There’s also going to be a neat little bonus this year for those subscribers since there’s two Sundays between Christmas and New Year’s when I usually take off. Today’s the last day to nab a discount in 2020 if you want in!

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Numlock News: December 3, 2020 • Mafia, ARMY, Redditors

By Walt Hickey

You Come To Me On The Day Of My Daughter’s Zoom Wedding

Interpol would like to warn you that the mafia will probably try to disrupt the distribution of the vaccine for COVID-19, according to a new statement released to 194 member countries on Wednesday. More specifically, organized crime networks are reportedly angling to worm into supply chains in order to get a hold of the vaccine, which will understandably fetch a ridiculous price on the black market. Furthermore, they warned of the sale of fraudulent vaccines through fake websites and fake cures, a tried and true tactic of organized crime: an Interpol analysis of 3,000 online pharmacies they believe hawk illegally disbursed medicine were also lousy with malware, with 1,700 of them home to such phishing or spamming tech. Anyway, I don’t know precisely who needs to hear this but please don’t get your coronavirus vaccination from the mafia, go to a doctor. If you’re having trouble telling the difference between the mafia and an honest American healthcare provider, one is a corrupt protection racket that functions as a powerful organized conspiracy to entrap desperate people into vast amounts of debt enforced by the possibility of grievous bodily harm once the debtor can no longer pay, and the other was featured in The Sopranos.

Julia Reinstein, BuzzFeed News

Flood

A new study published in Environmental Resource Letters points out upcoming risks to housing thanks to increased flooding thanks to climate change. In 2050, three times as many housing units will be exposed to frequent flooding as in the year 2000, and that year the United States will lose 24,519 units to repeated flooding. Many of these are in low-lying mid-Atlantic and northeastern states, especially in places like Norfolk, Virginia, which stands to lose 710 units of affordable housing by 2050 to flooding, about 6.7 percent of the city total.

Patrick Sisson, Bloomberg CityLab

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Work

Salesforce bought Slack for a breathtaking $27.7 billion, linking up the highly profitable company, which sells software that helps companies keep track of customers, and Slack, which successfully won the “who can best re-skin IRC to be palatable to normal people” lottery. One push for the acquisition was a competition with Microsoft that is heating up, and the fact that 90 percent of Slack’s enterprise customers are also Salesforce customers.

Clare Duffy and Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN Business

Old Business

When it comes to companies that have been in operation for a long time, Japan is chock-full of them. It’s home to over 33,000 businesses that have been in operation for over 100 years, which is about 40 percent of the total known businesses the world over. While that’s a great run that makes for some fun trivia for some well-known companies — Nintendo is 131 years old! They first sold playing cards! — there are other businesses in an entirely different league including 3,100 that have existed for more than 200 years, 140 that have been around for 500 years, and at least 19 that have generally accepted claims of continuous operation since the first millennium. One of these companies, Ichiwa, sells mochi, another named Tanaka Iga Butsugu has made Buddhist religious supplies since 885.

Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno, The New York Times

BTS

This Friday, Kim Seok-jin of pop music sensation turns 28, and while aging out of your mid-20s is never particularly fun, for Kim it’d have been a real issue given that South Korea mandates enrolling in military service for young men for about 20 months by age 28. Given that BTS is pretty popular — you know, a sensation the likes of which Korea has never seen before, wielding global influence, a soft power coup that any nation would want, and serving as an international cultural ambassador for the country at a tenuous time in geopolitical relations in the region — given that, legislators thought better of pulling the plug on that one. On Tuesday, they passed a revision to the Military Service Act allowing entertainers who received government medals for spreading Korea’s cultural influence — like all the boys of BTS have — to delay their service another two years, until they are 30. Every year about 200,000 young men who are not K-pop stars have to join the military.

Choe Sang-Hun, The New York Times

Redditors

Reddit revealed for the first time its daily active user count, a figure that had been used by other social media companies to attract advertisers. The company said it averaged 52 million daily active users in the month of October, which is up 44 percent from October 2019. This would pretty much blow up the idea that Reddit is just me and one other guy who has a lot of sock puppet accounts. By comparison, Twitter averaged 187 million daily users in Q3 and Facebook averaged 1.82 billion.

Sahil Patel, The Wall Street Journal

Appliances

After months at home with them, Americans are shelling out for new and improved home appliances, and manufacturers are obliging them with new functionalities designed for times like these. From May to August 2020, sales of kitchen machines went up 99 percent, washing machines were up 46 percent, air treatment appliances up 23 percent, and espresso machines up 39 percent. Year over year, sales of vacuum cleaners were up 32 percent from March to August compared to the same period a year ago, and sales of washing machines with purifying steam functions were up 46 percent over the summer.

Elizabeth Koh, The Wall Street Journal

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Numlock News: December 2, 2020 • Masons, Monoliths, Mandalorians

By Walt Hickey

Streetwear

The resale market in North America for sneakers and streetwear is worth over $2 billion annually. With that much money on the line an arsenal of sophisticated bots at the disposal of speculators has flooded the market, and made the once-simple experience of “buying some rad sneakers” a John Henry-esque grind for the honest hypebeasts among us. Simple Captchas are no match for them — rudimentary commercially available AI image recognition tools can solve 70 percent of Captchas, per a 2016 study — and the robot army is not stopping at shoes and Supreme. As online scalping becomes more profitable and reliable — about 90 percent of website traffic on the designer shoe sites during flash sales are bots waiting to buy — the bots are not just getting the new kicks before you do, but buying the PlayStation 5 before Santa can.

Teresa Carr, Undark

Arecibo

Following accumulating damage over the course of the past several months the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico sustained a previously unimaginable collapse Tuesday when the 900-ton receiver platform became dislodged from its moorings and fell 400 feet on to the damaged reflector dish below. It’s a decisive, brutal end to the telescope, which had seen decades of service and the U.S. National Science Foundation had just recently announced its decommissioning following the cable breaks. While scientists had been urging the NSF to reverse that decision, gravity has kind of ruled that one out.

Dánica Coto, The Associated Press

Monolith

Everyone has been enraptured by the shiny, weird monolith that appeared in the Utah desert, only to disappear. Shortly later, a similar monolith appeared across the world in Romania. I wish to assure you that is only the second-most captivating monolith story in the news these days. (Also, come on, it has “art project” or “viral marketing” written all over it.) Anyway, the real deal is the disappearance of a 6.5 foot wooden monument that had stood for four or five years on the 5,702 foot tall Grünten mountain, a local icon which appears to have been chopped down over the weekend. It weighs 440 pounds, and, by the way, did I mention the sculpture is 100 percent a gigantic phallus? Police in the town of Kempten have announced an investigation to find the missing wood, while local municipal leadership have decried the disappearance.

BBC

Mandalorian

Disney Plus hit The Mandalorian is having the desired synergistic effect, according to an analysis of streams of other Star Wars spinoff products. According to Parrot Analytics, the Clone Wars animated television series is today four times as popular as it was before The Mandalorian came around, a surge of interest fans attribute to the hit forging direct links between the old animated series and the new Pedro Pascal-starring series. This network effect isn’t exactly new — if anything, it’s the very foundation of the Disney business model — but it’s definitely a good sign that the investment in Disney Plus originals is working out well and juicing interest in the back catalog, especially with a number of Marvel-related originals coming down the pipeline.

Julia Alexander, The Verge

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We do, we do!

Participation in organized social groups has taken a nosedive in the United States in the past several decades, especially among fraternal organizations like the Freemasons and Knights of Columbus. A 2019 congressional report found membership rates in some organizations fell from 75 percent in 1974 to 62 percent in 2004, and a colossal 52 percent drop was seen in the membership rolls of the fraternal organizations. The Masons in particular are making a push for new members, having seen their number fall significantly since their peak in 1959, when 4.1 million — 4.5 percent of American men — were members. They’ve since sustained a 75 percent fall in membership, and the solution isn’t readily clear. If someone wanted to join an exclusive, secretive, predominantly male organization that met regularly and was obsessed with architecture, most kids these days would just set up a private Minecraft server.

Christianna Silva, NPR

Air Travel

An analysis of business travel trends suggests that somewhere between 19 and 36 percent of all air trips are projected to be lost permanently following whatever the eventual return to normalcy looks to be, as new wired business environments and cut budgets permanently change the face of the airline business. The 10 to 15 percent of business travelers account for 40 percent of revenue at the major global air carriers, with business trips contributing an estimated $334 billion out of the $1.1 trillion in travel revenue in 2019. The uncertainty of the foundation of the airline business could mean serious changes in the economics of air in the years to come.

Scott McCartney, The Wall Street Journal

TikTok

In late June, India banned TikTok, which then had 200 million monthly active users in the country. The move was part of a larger technical broadside against China during a testy military situation that had developed on the nations’ border. What followed were some pretty instantaneous plays for the market: two 21-year-old students spent three weeks coding a mediocre knockoff of TikTok, threw it into the Google Play Store, named it “Indian TikTok” and have since scored about 1 million downloads. Indeed, ports of the banned app have been a booming business: of the 100 top social apps in the Google Play Store, some 13 are TikTok knockoffs. Some are serious players in Indian tech trying to muscle in on the market, others are the shabbiest possible cash-in, but in either case, it’s a shot for local developers to assert some control in the home market.

Varsha Bansal, Rest of World

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Numlock News: December 1, 2020 • Hot Sauce, Dry Ice, Named Storms

By Walt Hickey

Sauce

McCormick & Co. has purchased Cholula Hot Sauce for $800 million from its private equity ownership. Cholula has about $96 million in yearly sales, and its acquisition means more condiments for the company best known as a spice maker, which also owns Frank’s RedHot as well as French’s mustard. McCormick has been a big winner during the shift of food preparation to the home, with sales up 8 percent last quarter despite deep drops in its restaurant business. Hot sauce in general is poised to be a winning investment: the U.S. market for hot sauce was $1.1 billion in 2010, and in 2022 hot sauce sales are projected to hit $1.65 billion, a 50 percent increase over the period.

Christopher Doering, Food Dive

Ice

Dry ice is in serious demand as the logistical component of Operation Warp Speed kicks into gear, with vaccines requiring seriously cold temperatures over the course of transit to remain viable. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine needs to be in a freezer that goes to -70 degrees Celsius, but the way it’ll move between the freezers in the distribution center and the ones in the hospitals or medical centers will be in special shipping cases the size of a carry-on suitcase that can hold up to 5,000 doses each, with room for 50 pounds of dry ice to keep everything frozen en route. If their destinations lack the freezers, they’ll need another 50 pounds of dry ice every five days to keep chilled, up to fifteen days — each recharge taking no more than three minutes. Given that Pfizer estimated 25 million vaccine doses by the end of the year, that’s a tremendous amount of dry ice. Even in an insulated bin, 1,500 pounds of dry ice sublimates to 1,300 pounds over the course of two days, so those who receive containers of the Pfizer vaccine will need to be very tactical about the frozen choreography of keeping that stuff cold.

Charles Fishman, The Atlantic

School’s Out

The Baltimore County school district halted classes Monday and Tuesday for 115,000 students following a ransomware attack that hit the school district last Wednesday before the Thanksgiving holiday. Elementary school teachers went into school Monday to have their devices checked for malware after hackers obtained control of school systems and shut down the network. The attack — which appears severe according to security researchers, though officials have not been forthcoming with details yet — could have compromised things like transcripts or payroll information, in addition to the attempted extortion to allow the school district to access their resources again.

Lillian Reed, Liz Bowie and Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun, and BBC News

Hurricane

Yesterday saw the traditional conclusion of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season, a record-setting season fueled by a La Niña weather pattern and record temperatures in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf. There were 30 named storms, 12 of which saw landfalls in the continental United States, setting new records for both occurrences. The 30 named storms posed a concern as they ran out of names fairly early in the season, eventually resorting to the Greek alphabet and making it all the way to Hurricane Iota. This presents an issue, in and of itself, as typically highly destructive storms names — such as Eta and Iota — would see their names retired, but the Greek alphabet will remain the consistent backfill and the World Meteorological Organization has decided not to retire them.

Greg Allen, NPR

Standards

The European Union will impose stricter requirements for batteries, aiming to ensure that the batteries used in electric vehicles and other industrial applications on the continent are the most efficient. Already, in the second quarter of 2020 electric vehicles made up 9.4 percent of European passenger car sales, higher than the 4.6 percent in China, 0.5 percent in Japan, and 1.6 percent in North America, and the European battery market is projected to reach 250 billion euros by 2025. The requirements, which will be rolled out in a month, aim to push manufacturers toward using clean energy in production, increasing efficiency, improving their durability and ensuring the raw material is sourced responsibly.

Ewa Krukowska, Bloomberg

Netflix

Netflix has once again blown apart the Hollywood playbook, this time doing something unthinkable to the powers that be in both the technology and the movie industry: actually doing their accounting honestly. Next year, Netflix will declare its United Kingdom revenues — projected to be £1.3 billion — to British tax authorities, rather than continuing to route its profits through The Netherlands where the tax situation is a little more convenient. In 2018, Netflix made £700 million from U.K. subscribers, but declared just 48 million Euros in revenue, describing it as a services fee from the Netherlands headquarters. Finally, the Crown will be able to wet their beak from The Crown.

Alex Ritman, The Hollywood Reporter

Radioactive Water

Radioactive water is accumulating at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant as workers have pumped water into the destroyed buildings to keep the site cool for the past ten years. After coming into contact with the reactors, the water has to be stored, and while operator Tokyo Electric Power Company has built tanks for this exact purpose, there are over one million tonnes of water in those tanks as of this year. By 2022, they believe they’ll run out of room for new tanks. There are potentially 62 radioactive elements in that wastewater, and as of 2018, some particularly gnarly isotopes were still exceeding safe levels, even after cleaning. The Japanese government will eventually have to decide what to do with this waste, which could include slowly dumping it into the ocean. That’s banned by the London Protocol, and the United Nations International Maritime Organization will likely have some very strong feelings about any such plan.

Amorina Kingdon, Hakai Magazine

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Numlock News: November 30, 2020 • Wolves, Minks, Croods

By Walt Hickey

Welcome back!

Rent

The median rent for a studio apartment in Manhattan fell 17 percent year over year in October to $2,245, the lowest it’s been since July 2011. Indeed, that’s even an understatement, as factoring in new incentives like free months and comped brokers’ fees, the median is actually closer to $2,069. As recently as March of this year, rents hit a high of $2,800 per month for a Manhattan studio. The decrease is prompting some longtime New York City roommates to seize this moment to break up now that they independently qualify for the 40-times the monthly rent income requirement regularly cited as the general ballpark of eligibility.

Oshrat Carmiel, Bloomberg

BO11LUX

The U.S. District Court of Northern California ruled in favor of five litigants who sued the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles after being prevented from incorporating coarse language into vanity license plates, which the court held is obviously a violation of their First Amendment rights. The plaintiffs, represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, included a gay businessman who wanted the license plate ‘QUEER,’ a metal fan who desired the plate ‘SLAAYRR,’ one who wanted the plate ‘BO11LUX,’ and two slightly more esoteric plate puns — ‘DUK N A’ and ‘OGWOOLF’ — whose negative connotations escape me. The last one was banned because “OG” could imply gang associations, but was from a guy named Ogilvie who just enjoyed wolves. Anyway, the court agreed this is all incredibly stupid, and while the DMV can still probably deny obscene and profane speech, these objections related to “good taste and decency” are a First Amendment no-go.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason and Pacific Legal Foundation

There’s Going To Be A Party When The Wolf Comes Home

By 2030, a rural area of the European Union that’s about the size of Italy will likely be unattended and unrestrained, allowing it to be reclaimed by wildlife as the people who used to farm it will have moved to cities. The return of some of these spaces has meant the return of some creatures pushed to the brink in Europe, specifically large carnivores. There are 9,000 lynx believed to live on the continent, about 17,000 brown bears, and about 12,000 wolves. That’s more wolves than in the contiguous United States, and they’ve been documented in every mainland country on the continent. Germany now has over 100 wolf packs, and the return of an apex predator has been good for the local ecosystem, so much so that Scotland — notoriously not on the continent — has been eyeing those wolves with a bit of envy, particularly given the population of red deer increased from 155,000 in 1959 to 400,000 today. In the absence of wolves, the apex predator has been landowners forced to cull the deer by the thousands.

Cal Flyn, The Guardian

Croods

The Croods: A New Age made $14.2 million over the course of the five-day Thanksgiving weekend box office, a surprisingly high figure. It’s the largest studio picture released since Tenet, and actually beat the opening weekend of that Christopher Nolan thriller comparing their three-day returns, despite only appearing in 2,211 theaters. Thanks to a deal Universal cut with the theaters, the movie will be available on VOD in three weeks, well short of the traditional theatrical window. About 41 percent of ticket buyers for the film were under the age of 17, according to PostTrak, showing there’s an appetite for family films in an ongoing pandemic. That, or maybe the kids are really into Nicolas Cage movies. Could really go either way with this one, we should probably put some more Nic Cage movies in cinemas to test this out.

Pamela McClintock, The Hollywood Reporter

Niobium

Niobium is an element with significant technical applications like turbines, magnets, pipelines and lithium-ion batteries, and infrastructure like steel and skyscraper components. When added to steel, it makes it more resistant to cracking, and the rare earth element has applications in all sorts of hi-tech. This is important because 98 percent of the active niobium reserves on Earth are in Brazil, and 75 percent comes from a private Brazilian company named Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração, or CBMM. The company has production ties to China, which has become increasingly invested in Brazil’s niobium business: a Chinese consortium bought 15 percent of CBMM in 2011, and in 2016, China Molybdenum Co. Ltd bought two Brazilian mines responsible for 10 percent of global niobium production.

Devi Lockwood and Leo Schwartz, Rest of World

Friday, Just Friday

According to retail tracker Sensormatic Solutions, visits to stores in the United States dropped 52 percent year over year on Black Friday, as part of a calibrated strategy by retailers to cut down on crowds by spreading out sales, cutting hours, limiting doorbusters and pushing shoppers online. That appears to have worked out — Adobe Analytics estimated that Americans spent $9 billion on retail sites on Friday, up 22 percent over the 2019 figure of $7.4 billion. Friday will probably still be the biggest retail shopping day of the year when all is said and done, but it was definitely weirder. The biggest drop? On Thanksgiving, traffic to stores was down 95 percent, so glad we got that out of our system. That was a pretty bleak trend for a few years there.

Dee-Ann Durbin, The Associated Press

Minks

Remember the 15 million to 17 million minks that Denmark killed? Yeah, well, they’re back. The government announced Friday they are weighing a plan to exhume the millions of culled minks (a mutated version of the coronavirus was spreading among the mammals, which were raised for their fur), and cremate their carcasses after their quick disposal led to worries of enormous quantities of nitrogen and phosphorous being released into the soil around the enormous tombs in which they were interred. Most of the Danish parliament supports the idea, which makes sense because earlier this week everyone got real freaked out after the decomposition process made a whole scene in Holstebro. The good news is that the Danish government thinks the potential threat to vaccine efficacy is most likely handled.

Agence France Presse

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