Numlock News: January 24, 2020 • Satellites, Cabernet Sauvignon, Snake Venom

By Walt Hickey

Have a great weekend!


DirecTV had to ask the FCC for permission to crash a satellite out of orbit, the Spaceway-1, a 15-year-old Boeing 702HP. In what is still only the second-biggest problem Boeing has had lately, the satellite has suffered serious thermal damage to its batteries, and those batteries can’t be guaranteed to not burst anymore, and given that that would be a debris-spewing problem in orbit the best course of action is just to crash it into the atmosphere. The satellite has 73 kilograms of propellant left, and typically the plan would be to burn that off over the next two to three months. But given that eclipse season is coming up for the satellite in late February and the batteries are in no condition to endure that, the plan is to either de-orbit the satellite and let it burn up in the atmosphere or to alternatively blast it 300 kilometers out and let it die in the murky blackness of space.

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica


The in-home orthodontic business is accelerating, with the sector leader — SmileDirectClub, with 95 percent of the at-home clear aligner business — having 750,000 customers so far. However, the do-it-yourself style is not without its risks, with Kaiser Health News tracking 1,600 complaints against SmileDirectClub lodged to the Better Business Bureau, 72 complaints to the FDA since 2017, 175 to the FTC (with a few duplicates) and — after contacting 51 state attorneys general with 34 responses — 19 states reporting 75 complaints. As for me? I recently installed a door knob, and did it backwards the first time and backwards (but a different way) the second time, so I’m going to sit this trend out.

Julia Appleby and Victoria Knight, Kaiser Health News


The recent outbreak in China has many wondering about the ability of the U.S. pharmaceutical business to respond to a threat, and, well, don’t think about that. The majority of the pharmaceutical R&D is from just 20 pharmaceutical companies that spent more than $2 billion in 12 months, but only four of those companies have major vaccine units. One reason for that is that vaccines aren’t really profit blockbusters, let alone able to reliably recover development costs, and federal investment is trending down. As of Q2 2019, just 65 chemicals were in the pharmaceutical pipeline that were vaccines or treated infectious diseases. Compare that to the 195 in development in oncology, a more profitable avenue.

Max Nisen, Bloomberg


Rodney Strong Vineyards in northern California reported a massive leak Wednesday, accidentally dumping 97,112 gallons of wine that poured into the nearby Reiman Creek and ultimately the Russian River. About 20 percent of the liquid was contained in the process, and the fire department, two vacuum trucks and an improvised dam were called into action to quaff the cascade of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Jared Gilmour and Don Sweeney, The Sacramento Bee


A new survey from Cigna found a 13 percent increase in reported loneliness since 2018. The survey — of over 10,000 adult workers last summer — found that 63 percent of men were lonely, as well as 58 percent of women. The youngest respondents, those 18 to 22, had the highest average loneliness score while the older Boomer respondents had the lowest. I’m not ready for a future in which my health insurer allows me to use flexible spending account dollars to start a podcast with buddies — the only known treatment for male loneliness — but, listen, I’m not exactly opposed to it.

Elena Renken, NPR


Coal fell from 14.3 percent to just 4.8 percent of Spain’s national electricity power mix, a 70 percent drop and the lowest level in four decades. There are eleven coal plants in Spain that have a capacity of 500 megawatts or more, but the nation is investing heavily to not only move away from carbon-based generation but also guarantee successful transitions for affected workers. The government cut a deal with unions for 250 million euros in exchange for shutting down coal mining in the country. The coal plants in the Spanish market lost a projected 992 million euros in 2019.

Akshat Rathi and Jeremy Hodges, Bloomberg


Stem cells collected from mice can be treated to produce “organoids,” or small versions of full-sized organs. They have also been used to create organoids from other species, such as humans. One project attacks a massive health issue long considered the most significant under-treated affliction of humanity — snake bites. Snakebites kill between 81,000 and 138,000 people annually, and those who survive can be permanently disabled by the venom and suffer long-lasting consequences. To create anti-venom, you have to first milk venom from snakes, then inject it into horses, and finally harvest the anti-bodies they subsequently produce. Messed up, I know, but it was the only way, at least until this organoid experimentation gets off the ground developing faux venom sacs. So far, the lab has grown venom sacs from eight species, with a target of 50, and could study those venomous proteins to labs to develop ways to neutralize them more effectively and without all the stabbed horses.

Ed Yong, The Atlantic


Eighteen Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies will provide $55 million to the nonprofit Civica Rx. The organization was formed by health care organizations and philanthropies, and it’s goal is to sell generic drugs at low prices and as a steady supply for hospitals as a way to do an end-run around the current generic market. As it stands, about 90 percent of prescriptions are generic, but nevertheless the market remains oddly competitive given the few participants in the space, leading to accusations of price gouging and allegations of price fixing schemes.

Beth Mole, Ars Technica

Last Sunday, I spoke to writer Dani Leviss about ghost gear, the discarded fishing equipment that’s causing a whole lot of problems the world over. The original story in Hakai Magazine can be found here. It was a really great interview — with an unexpected twist!and I’ve dropped the paywall for a bit if you want to check it out.

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