Numlock News: June 26, 2020 • Robotic Vacuums, Unlicensed Pilots, Old Beef

By Walt Hickey

Have a great weekend!


iRobot, the manufacturer behind the Roomba robotic vacuum, was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t have a miserable second quarter when the expectation was nobody would buy thousand dollar robots during a global recession. Analysts had projected a 30 percent drop from the $193 million hauled in during Q1, but now the company is projecting that next month they’ll announce revenue around $260 million. Turns out that when you lock a solid chunk of society in their houses and apartments for months on end, they start getting real comfortable shelling out top dollar to have a robot vacuum their place all the time for them. Also, if you draw a smiley face on it, you effectively have a pet or a particularly rad roommate.

Rob Walker, Marker


From 2010 to 2018, water bills in 12 U.S. cities increased by an average of 80 percent, with some of those municipalities seeing residential water bills rise above 4 percent of household income. In Austin, Texas, the average annual bill rose from $566 in 2010 to $1,435 in 2018, a 154 percent increase despite an overall reduction in water usage. As for why this has happened, federal aid to public water utilities has decreased 77 percent since 1977, which has shifted the onus to local utilities to raise funds. As many as one in 20 homes are disconnected for unpaid bills annually.

Nina Lakhani, The Guardian


According to Pakistan’s aviation minister, 262 pilots in the country have fake licenses and are not qualified to fly because they did not themselves take the certification exam and instead paid someone else to take it for them. For perspective, Pakistan has only 860 active pilots in its domestic airlines, so this is a distressingly high percentage of them. The revelation follows a plane crash that killed 97 people in Karachi in late May.

Sophia Saifi and Nectar Gan, CNN

All In Your Head

A new neuroscience study out of Duke University raises serious questions about any recent stories you may have read that started with the phrase “A new neuroscience study.” The researchers examined 56 peer-reviewed papers with 90 fMRI experiments and looked at test/retest fMRIs, when the same subjects were asked to do the same test months later. An fMRI measures blood flow to different parts of the brain, but this study raises questions about replication in individuals, as none of the analyzed studies had consistent readings across seven measures of brain function among participants. While averaging fMRI readings across a large subject pool to learn about general brain behavior is still fine, this specifically calls into question conclusions about specific individuals’ minds, casting doubt on the possibility of predicting an individual’s pattern of thought.

Arianne Cohen, Fast Company


Sales of print books were up 9.1 percent last week, according to NPD Bookscan, with the top seller in the United States being How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, which moved 138,000 copies, up 418 percent compared to the previous week. The second-place finisher was White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, which sold 107,000 copies, up 97 percent week over week. Overall printed book sales are up 23 percent year to date.

Jim Milliot, Publishers Weekly

Less Baseball

Major League Baseball will return this year, with the caveat that there is significantly less baseball happening. Beyond the shortened season, a new extra innings policy that had been rolled out in the minors in 2018 is being implemented at the MLB level, where a runner will start on second base at the beginning of extra innings. This has had some significant effects in the minors: In the two seasons where it was implemented, just 43 games went to more than three extra innings, compared to 345 games in the two seasons before the rollout. Of the 2,429 MLB games played in 2019, 208 games went into extra innings, with 95 finishing in the 10th, and 97.7 percent of all games ending by the 11th inning or earlier. As such, this may be overkill: the incredibly long extra innings games are rare.

Jon Taylor, Fangraphs

Old Beef

It’s hard to get your hands on steak from older cows in the United States, despite the popularity of meat from more mature animals in places like Spain. In the U.S., essentially all beef sold comes from cattle aged 18 to 30 months, mainly because the profit margin on the animal goes up the less time it spends alive. Some more niche or artisanal farms are moving towards producing beef from older cattle, who were former dairy cows or even raised explicitly for this purpose. The meat tastes “beefier,” more complex, and the fat has more depth of flavor rather than the glorified veal the rest of us are munching on.

Matthew Kronsberg, Bloomberg

Last Sunday’s subscriber special was a wonderful interview with Julie Halpert who wrote “Why We Aren’t Using UV to Disinfect Everything—Yet” for OneZero. It’s a great look at a technology whose time has come yet again, as UV makes a comeback. Julie can be found on Twitter and at her website. Her work appears in The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe 74 and more.

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