Numlock News: June 12, 2020 • Coca, Tofu, Timber

By Walt Hickey

Have a great weekend.


A new paper accepted to Physical Review X put bacteria to the test, constructing a complex labyrinth to determine if bacteria are capable of communication. About 10 E. coli bacteria were placed at the center of a maze etched into silicon chip and filled with a broth they eat. Those 10 bacteria became over a million over the course of 10 hours, and about 1 percent managed to make it through and complete the maze. The reason this is actually interesting is that, had the bacteria just been moving about randomly, it would have taken them five times as long to complete the maze. Instead, bacteria pursued broth-rich unexplored regions, gorging themselves until the problem was solved. Incidentally this is also how I solve most of my personal problems.

Sophia Chen, Wired


The coca leaf, which is the essential ingredient in the manufacture of cocaine, is in the midst of a price crash. Prices for coca are down as much as 73 percent in some regions of South America, upending a market for the farmers who supply the precursor ingredient to the cartels. It’s far from the only logistical hurdle the business minds at your standard cartel are confronting: global chemical manufacturing disruptions have made it difficult to get a steady supply of potassium permanganate, an essential component in any clandestine cocaine manufacture facility, not to mention the serious difficulty in moving product north amid curbs in transit. This has doubled prices stateside in some cities, with cartels relying on cocaine reserves, while also crashing the price of the commodity used to make it. The effect could be felt for years to come: besides possibly convincing farmers to pursue other crops, the pressure could eliminate many of the smaller cartels that lack the infrastructure and capital of the larger cartels. This story is…weirdly familiar for some reason.

Anthony Faiola and Lucien Chauvin, The Washington Post



South Korean company Pulmuone controls around 78 percent of the market for tofu in the United States, and business is incredible to the extent that there’s the need to run U.S. manufacturing plants six days a week and even import tofu from Korea. Overall, tofu sales were up 66.7 percent over 2019 in March, and sales of tofu were still up by 32.8 percent in May. Last year, tofu sales were $363 million, and amid the sales boost — tofu is cheap, a good source of protein in a low-calorie package — the sales pop may very well hold.

Larissa Zimberoff, Bloomberg


Television for kids has been in high demand in general — overall, up 39.5 percent in May 2020 compared to May 2019 — but of particular interest is the overperformance of shows for kids that feature diverse leads. The 28 shows that Common Sense Media identified as featuring diverse characters were up by 58.3 percent in May 2020 compared to May 2019, a striking overperformance according to tabulator Parrot Analytics.

Alexandra Whyte, Kidscreen


A new study published in Science collected 339 samples of dust from 11 U.S. national parks and wilderness areas and analyzed them for plastic. In 98 percent of the samples, tiny bits of plastic made up at least some part of the mix of dust collected from these ostensibly pristine wilderness areas. Overall, plastics accounted for 4 percent of the dust particles tested. The plastic microfibers collected lined up with plastic microfibers used in clothing, carpeting, industrial coating, tents and waterproof clothing. This means it could have come from guests, though most of it wasn’t that kind of plastic, which suggests that small particles of plastic travel through the air and it’s entirely possible we’re breathing it right now.

John Schwartz, The New York Times

It’s Going Down

The timber industry is a force to be reckoned with in Oregon. Though the timber business once employed one out of every 10 workers in Oregon, the companies have restructured to become both leaner and more profitable thanks to the elimination of a tax that supported local municipalities. Back when a tenth of Oregonians worked in timber, the industry paid over $120 million per year into counties and schools in property taxes as well as severance taxes, which are paid when a tree is felled. Today, just one in 50 working Oregonians are in timber, and they only pay $25 million in severance and property taxes. In western Oregon, about 40 percent of private forestlands are owned by investment companies designed to buy up forests, cut them down on a faster cycle than typical, export the wood to mill it rather than process it locally, and then sell the property after it’s been logged. The total value of timber logged on private lands since 1991 in Oregon is $67 billion, and had the state not phased out its severance, tax companies would have owed $3 billion to the communities whose trees they logged. Instead, they actually paid $871 million in severance tax over the period.

Tony Schick, OPB, Rob Davis, The Oregonian, and Lylla Younes, ProPublica

Call Centers

While call centers would seem to be an ideal job to transition well to work from home, not so fast: in many countries where call center employees are located, home internet or phone service is buggy, and as a result, centralized areas with computerized systems remains the case. This may present a serious problem, as those exact kinds of dense internal spaces seem to be the biggest problem areas in terms of virus transmission. For instance, take the Philippines: 1.3 million people work directly in the call center business, and in aggregate it accounts for 8 percent of gross domestic product.

Bruce Einhorn and Siegfrid Alegado, Bloomberg

Last week’s Numlock Sunday was with Max Nisen about the coronavirus vaccine and treatment effort. He’s been really ahead of the curve on this stuff, writing “Deadly Viruses Aren't Pharma's Top Priority. Why Not?” as early as January, and you should follow him on Bloomberg Opinion and on Twitter.

Incidentally, Max is next interested in talking to medical research sources about what you can and can't do to speed up vaccine trials, his email is if you work in the space and want to reach out.

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