Numlock News: March 25, 2020 • Ice, Cobalt, Robots

By Walt Hickey


A congressional audit of long-term maintenance costs of the USS Gerald R. Ford and the USS George H. W. Bush, two state-of-the-art brand-new aircraft carriers, found that they’ll incur some $130 billion in previously underestimated costs. The cost of the lifetime operations and maintenance of the Ford alone increased from $77.3 billion to $123 billion, per the report. One cost is the periodic cleaning of the sewage systems on the vessels with specialized acids that cost $400,000 a pop. The Navy was reportedly unable to foresee that often many sailors at a time may feel the need to drop anchor, and reportedly did not design the system for such high-volume occurrences, such as “morning.”

Anthony Capaccio, Bloomberg

Queen Anne’s Revenge

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of the state of North Carolina on Monday in a suit where a filmmaker alleged the state had infringed his copyright, a thing that states are simply allowed to do. In 1996, the remains of the Queen Anne’s Revenge were located a mile off the coast of North Carolina, and the state paid a company to try to recover the ship — sunk by Blackbeard in 1717 — and for Frederick Allen to document the operation. When North Carolina used Allen’s work online without permission or royalties, Allen sued in federal court. However, despite being pretty clearly in the right, individuals can’t sue states in federal court. Anyway, I now call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to post Friends on, please sign my petition, thank you.

Nina Totenberg, NPR


SpaceX is trying to get lots of communications satellites into orbit so that they can launch a global system to bring wireless internet around the world. It’s an incredibly ambitious plan and could bring serious benefits to remote places without wired access, but there’s a major downside. It’ll take hundreds of these satellites to build the constellation, and those reflective satellites can cause serious problems for astronomers, who tend to need unobstructed sky in order to see space. In its last batch sent up in January, one spacecraft — DarkSat — had been painted with an experimental dark coating. Now that it’s in position, the data’s in: the satellite is 55 percent fainter than the other Starlink satellites, to the point that it’s no longer visible to the naked eye. Still, 55 percent is not 100 percent, and Starlink still poses an issue, so now SpaceX is looking at further light-reducing countermeasures.

Loren Grush, The Verge


Lithium-ion batteries need cobalt, manganese and nickel to make up the cathode. Cobalt is really expensive and largely originates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it’s mined under bad conditions. A major goal of the electric vehicle industry has been to reduce the fraction of manganese and cobalt in the cathode to drive costs down and increase availability. Now, cobalt is 20 percent to 33 percent of the cathode in most batteries, but the newest battery design — NMC 811 — is eight parts nickel to one part manganese to one part cobalt, so a serious advance. In 2018, 1 percent of electric vehicle sales in China were NMC 811 cars, a figure that in January was up to 12 percent. And it’s coming stateside as well, with South Korea’s LG Chemical producing NMC 811 batteries for GM’s new electric Hummer. The fact that the Hummer of all things may be the most state-of-the-art energy-saving vehicle on the lot shows the world is truly upside-down.

Steve LeVine, Market



Computer programs are not inherently bound by the human constructs of gender, but that didn’t stop every single home assistant to defaulting to female, from Alexa to Cortana and Siri and so on. Barking orders at an acquiescing woman robot is not an awesome look when you really get down to it, especially because a UN report estimated that voice assistants do something on the order of one billion tasks and chores per month, so maybe we need to reconsider the approach here. That’s one reason a creative agency designed Q, a voice assistant design with a register between 145 hertz and 175 hertz. They further designed it until they determined a register where 26 percent of respondents said it sounded male, 24 percent said female, and 50 percent could not determine. That way, you can still earn your place at the losing side of the robot revolution while staying on the right side of the feminist one.

Madeline Morley, AIGA Eye on Design


The long term average ice coverage for the five Great Lakes is, historically, 55 percent. This year, the five lakes — Huron, Superior, Erie, Ontario and Michigan — had ice cover only 22 percent of their surfaces, which is near the record low. A symptom of larger trends globally, the Great Lakes area relies on the lakes freezing up for all sorts of cultural and economic reasons. One estimate puts winter tourism across the local economies of the Great Lakes at something like $3.5 billion. In parts of Lake Superior, the ice season has decreased by an average of one day every year for the past several decades, meaning there’s something like a month less of ice than there was in the ‘80s.

Alejandra Borunda, National Geographic

Closing Time

Over the course of 10 days, at least 90 nationwide retailers have closed a breathtaking 47,468 chain stores as of Monday. The first of them was Apple, which started its shutdowns on March 14, and was joined that same day by Anthropologie, Free People and Urban Outfitters. The following day saw the closures of Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, Land’s End and Columbia. The next few days were a cascade of closures, many committing to a two-week shut down, others being a little more vague. There were a few latecomers — as recently as Sunday you could still walk into a Jared, Kay or Zales to pick up some jewelry.

Jordyn Holman, Kim Bhasin and Christopher Cannon, Bloomberg

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