Numlock News: June 29, 2021 • The Flintstones, Bees, Battlefield Nuclear Microreactors

By Walt Hickey


The Panama Canal is responsible for expediting some 4 percent of global trade, but droughts and climate change are posing a long-term water problem that, if not fixed, could eventually pose a significant threat to a substantial chunk of trade. Every time a ship passes through the waterway, between 200 and 350 million gallons of water are used. This had been fine because Panama is the fifth-rainiest country in the world, but over the past decade, droughts have caused issues maintaining the levels of Lake Gatún. The plan is a $2 billion proposal to maintain freshwater reserves, with the canal authority choosing from among 30 plans and seeing bids in the next two years, with a targeted completion of 2028. The most likely solution entails a combination of diverting flows from other rivers, storing treated sewage, building out new dams and reservoirs, or pumping in desalinated water.

Santiago Pérez, The Wall Street Journal

Modern Stone Age

The city of Hillsborough, California sued a homeowner who transformed their property in the San Francisco suburb into a peculiar shrine to the 1960s The Flintstones cartoon, a spectacle described as an “eyesore” by detractors in municipal government on one hand and “listen man, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it, it’s pretty weird, but it’s their property and weird ain’t illegal” on the other hand. In 2019, the city sued the owner, and then the owner counter-sued, and this past Thursday reports of a settlement emerged: the town will review and approve a survey of landscaping improvements, the owner will apply for building permits, and the town will pay the owner $125,000. Upon announcement of the terms, I must assume that the legal representation of the owner presumably squawked, shrugged to the camera and proclaimed “It’s a living!”

The Associated Press


The Pentagon wants small nuclear reactors that can be transported to the battlefield and provide 1 to 5MW of power. Naturally, the idea of “let’s put a functioning nuclear reactor inside an active warzone” is not exactly going over great among detractors. Over the course of fiscal years 2020 and 2021, $133 million was appropriated to Project Pele, and the Biden administration wants another $60 million for FY 2022. Taking a step back, the reason the military wants a portable reactor is potential demand from high-energy weapons and the high costs of transporting fuel during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program manager of Project Pele cited prices of $50 to $100 per gallon for diesel fuel delivered to bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, though critics cited costs of $12 per gallon for ground transport and $31 per gallon for air delivery to a base in Afghanistan. Those fuel convoys were the source of a considerable fraction of U.S. casualties in the conflicts — a 2015 RAND study put the percentage at 52 percent of casualties from 2001 to 2010 — but, again, with nuclear reactors on active forward operating bases, the downsides are not especially difficult to tease out.

David Kramer, Physics Today


The body that votes on the Grammy Awards is embarking on an expansion to have their ranks better reflect the music industry, and to that end the body — which had around 11,000 voting members as of late last year — has invited 2,710 to join the Recording Academy. The existing membership is 26 percent female and 27 percent from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups; the new invitees are 48 percent women — so still under half — 32 percent Black, 13 percent Hispanic or Latino and 4 percent Asian or Pacific Islander.

Gabrielle Sanchez, AV Club


There are currently 56.1 million millionaires in the world, most of whom are agglomerated in a few particularly rich countries. The United States, China and Japan combine to just over 50 percent of the millionaires of the world — the U.S. has 39.1 percent of the millionaires, China 9.4 percent and Japan 6.5 percent. Continentally, North America is home to 42.1 percent of all millionaires, while Europe still outpaces Asia with 17.2 percent of millionaires. In terms of millionaires per capita, though, one country wins out: fully 14.9 percent of the population of Switzerland are millionaires, well above the 9.4 percent of Australians who are millionaires and 8.8 percent of Americans.

Amanda Shendruk, Quartz


The state of Alaska is incidentally a paradise for bumblebees, which are declining across the Lower 48 states but remain robust and diverse in Alaska. Of the 50 bumblebee species seen in the U.S., half are found in Alaska, among them four species of bee found nowhere else in the country. Turns out the state’s pretty great for the bees, with those long winters and short summers gelling really well with the standard lifecycle of a bumblebee.

Gemma Tarlach, Atlas Obscura

Ancient Plagues

Researchers comparing the DNA of thousands of people across 26 populations around the world have found 42 genes among those believed to be crucial for coronaviruses that had a dominant version among East Asian populations, evidence that 20,000 to 25,000 years ago there was a coronavirus epidemic that was sufficiently devastating in the region that a genetic scar exists, remaining detectable to this day. Now all that’s left is to try to find circumstantial archeological evidence for this event, such as caches of half-finished woven garment projects, large stores of flour surrounded by amateurish sourdough starter or discarded exercise equipment that was purchased with the intent to use it regularly but then the person kind of fell off two months or so into lockdown, all telltale signs of a coronavirus event.

Carl Zimmer, The New York Times

Thanks to the paid subscribers to Numlock News who make this possible. Subscribers guarantee this stays ad-free, and get a special Sunday edition. Consider becoming a full subscriber today.

The best way to reach new readers is word of mouth. If you click THIS LINK in your inbox, it’ll create an easy-to-send pre-written email you can just fire off to some friends.

Send links to me on Twitter at @WaltHickey or email me with numbers, tips, or feedback at Send corrections or typos to the copy desk at

Check out the Numlock Book Club and Numlock award season supplement.

2021 Sunday subscriber editions:Sticky Stuff · For-profit Med School · A Good Day · Press Reset · Perverse Incentives · Demon Slayer · Carbon Credits · Money in Politics ·

Local News · Oscar Upsets · Sneakers · Post-pandemic Cities · Facebook AI · Fireflies · Vehicle Safety ·
Climate Codes · Figure Skating · True Believer · Apprentices · Sports Polls · Pipeline · Wattpad · The Nib · Driven
2020 Sunday Edition Archive
2019 Sunday Edition Archive
2018 Sunday Edition Archive