Numlock News: November 20, 2020 • Venom, Toxic Sludge, Barack Obama

By Walt Hickey

Have a wonderful weekend!


The venom from stinging insects can be collected, extracted, and transformed into medication that, after three to five years of treatments, can make people with severe allergies to bees, wasps and their stinging ilk less likely to have severe allergic reactions. This is a whole production system: teams collect pounds and pounds of the stinging insects — European paper wasps go for about $2,000 per pound, yellow hornets and yellow jackets closer to $600 per pound — and ship them off to pharmaceutical companies that extract the venom and turn them into medicine. Well, it used to be companies, now in the U.S. it’s just one company after Denmark-based ALK-Abello pulled out of the country after a tiff with the FDA. The market for venom immunotherapy in the U.S. is a tiny sliver ($20 million per year) of the overall enormous allergy drug business ($2 billion per year), but it’s never good for patients when just one company is able to supply a drug.

Hannah Hoag, Undark

They’re Very Fracked

The SEC is considering enforcement action against Covia Holding Corp., which is a major supplier of sand to hydraulic fracking companies. Drillers pump sand and water underground in order to, uh, frack hydraulically, and Covia — then named Fairmount Santrol — claimed that they had developed special, proprietary sand. They hyped it up and charged $250 per ton for it when the rest of the business was charging $100 per ton. This became a problem when their external hype (the sand is super) and their internal research (apparently it’s pretty much average) were in conflict, arousing the eyes of the feds. The fracking sand business peaked at $4 billion in market value in 2018, but collapsed when the fracking boom faltered; just 11.3 million tons of sand were sold in the third quarter of 2020 down from 31.1 million in the second quarter of 2019.

Rachel Adams-Heard and David Wethe, Bloomberg


Barack Obama wrote a memoir, and it’s selling really well at a time when the book industry — especially independent bookstores — seriously needs a shot in the arm. On the day of its release, the book sold over 887,000 copies, the largest opening day of any book Penguin Random House has ever published, beating out the 725,000 copies Michelle Obama’s book Becoming sold in 2018. Demand for the Obama book had the publisher increasing the initial print run from 3 million to 3.4 million copies. The book tells the story of a character named Barack Obama, who rose from humble beginnings and eventually — actually, sorry, I don’t want to spoil it, but trust me you are not going to believe how this goes.

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, The Wall Street Journal


The United States has almost 1,000 marine protected areas, a span of sea that covers 26 percent of the territorial waters in the United States. In areas like these, some or all fishing is prohibited, but poachers still do it because enforcement is really difficult due to the sheer expanse of ocean we’re talking here: Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawai’i alone is 1,508,870 square kilometers. There is a new solution in autonomous solar-powered ocean robots, such as Daphne being developed by Open Ocean Robotics in British Columbia, which can roam the waves, find ships of interest that may be fishing, collect evidence, and then call it in with identification if something’s suspicious.

Vanessa Minke-Martin, Hakai Magazine


In what the astronomical research community considers a gigantic bummer, the iconic Arecibo telescope will be decommissioned following structural damage incurred by two cable breaks that made the 57-year-old observatory too dangerous to repair. The National Science Foundation said that the situation is too structurally worrisome given the decayed state of the cables: there’s a 900 ton instrument platform hanging 137 meters above a 305-meter dish, and a controlled dismantling is now in the works. One cable break was an auxiliary cable, but when one of the 12 main suspension cables snapped that was a signal that things may be dire for the telescope, which by the way starred in GoldenEye and Contact and was an acclaimed screen presence.

Daniel Clery, Science Magazine


The password manager NordPass released its annual report about the state of passwords, and things are not great on the creativity and innovation front. The most popular password was “123456,” which was used 2,543,285 times per the analysis. Of the 275,699,516 passwords in their database, 44 percent were unique — showing up just once — though users alone are hardly at fault for the abysmal situation of passwords on the web. The average user has 25 percent more passwords now compared to earlier this year, as a shift to life online means that in-person events like school, work, and Dungeons & Dragons now necessitate password-protected user accounts for online services.

Samir Ferdowsi, Vice

Black Mayonnaise

A $1.5 billion project from the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the toxic sludge lining the bottom of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn has begun, and a decade of work stands before them. The industrial district surrounding the canal was once home to all the gross stuff that went down in a teeming port city, like tanneries, refineries, toxic waste, industrial runoff, liquid tar, carcasses, all the unsavory stuff. It’s a bad scene, so much so that the sediment is described as “black mayonnaise,” which is just a visual texture for me to throw at you this early in the morning and I’m sorry for that, really I am. The sediment is on average 10 feet thick along the bottom of the canal, which is 1.8 miles long.

Mihir Zaveri, The New York Times

Last week in the Sunday Edition, I spoke to Lev Akabas who wrote “College Athlete Endorsement Pay Gets Mild Public Support: Data Viz” for Sportico. The rights of college athletes has been a slow-boiling issue for decades, but right now, and in the immediate future, the amateur athletes are poised to gain a significant financial windfall, and we had a really great chat about the polling they’ve done about how that is poised to work. Lev can be found at Sportico and on Twitter.

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