Numlock News: September 15, 2020 • Boars, Bears, Nightmares

By Walt Hickey

A comic I edited at Insider about what went wrong in the U.S. pandemic response came out last night, you should check Totally Under Control out.


Daimler and their subsidiary Mercedes-Benz USA will pay $1.5 billion to resolve allegations they cheated on emissions tests, specifically violating laws by using “defeat device software” to beat tests on 250,000 cars and vans sold from 2009 to 2016 that ran on diesel engines that failed to meet emissions standards. Daimler has to repair at least 85 percent of the cars within two years and 85 percent of the affected vans within three. Defeat device software lets companies control pollution emitted by vehicles when in an EPA lab while not being active when on an actual road.

The Associated Press


Last year, the National Confectioners Association reported U.S. Halloween candy sales were $4.6 billion, the largest event for candy companies out there, and also, in a pandemic, a fundamentally cursed holiday where strangers go from house to house. If ever there were a year to just leave a bowl on the porch, it’s 2020, and that’s got companies like Hershey fretting because a slow Halloween can haunt them given their exposure: half their sales for the October holiday are used for trick-or-treaters. In general, candy sales are up slightly year-over-year since June, up 2.6 percent in August, but they’re not as high as the general category of food and beverages. Listen, I ask you who among us hasn’t spent lots of quarantine developing a rudimentary trebuchet to launch a Reese’s cup directly into a mouth, but that technology was developed for strictly personal reasons and out of boredom and is not ready for the big night.

Annie Gasparro, The Wall Street Journal


There are plenty of scientists who rough the frigid tempests of the arctic to hunt the most dangerous game in the frost-bitten tundra — ferocious polar bears — and having subdued them, anchor a collar to the beasts. These expeditions allow the dedicated researchers to monitor polar bear movements, a colossal effort that pays off dividends for years to come. Oh, except lots of times the polar bears get out of the collars, which sucks enormously for the scientists and I imagine is deeply demoralizing to those who went to a great deal of trouble to tag arctic bears. However, all that said, a new study published in the journal The Cryosphere offers a new lease on life for the discarded trackers. Researchers identified 20 collars yeeted by some bears and left on the ground, and found that, though imperceptibly slow, they still transmitted movement, not of any bears but of the ice drift beneath them. This allowed the researchers to follow ice melt movement from 2005 to 2015 in Hudson Bay, where there are few accessible sensors and poor satellite observations.

Chris Baraniuk, Scientific American


Prior to yesterday, phosphine — a gaseous compound of phosphorous and hydrogen — had been found on just three worlds in the solar system. On Jupiter and Saturn, the high pressure, extreme conditions and powerful storms are where the compound is formed. On Earth, phosphine is found in swamps, marshes, and inside some animals, a side effect of biological life. Venus lacks the extreme conditions of the gas giants, and scientists simulated lots of other mechanisms where phosphine gas would form — lightning, meteorites, tectonic activity, which Venus also lacks — and they could not produce enough phosphine to be detectable from Earth. That’s surprising news, as there are detectable traces of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus, and since the rocky world lacks the storms of Jupiter or Saturn, they contend it’s possible the gas could be biological in origin, as it is on Earth.

Marina Koren, The Atlantic


According to an International Journal of Dream Research survey with 1,546 respondents, the most common dream themes are bummers: 9 percent entail being chased or pursued, 8 percent entail school or studying, 5 percent are Sisyphean repeated failures to accomplish something, 5 percent entail falling, and 5 percent involve an attack. Turns out that the whole pandemic thing means Morpheus is adding a little bit of firepower into everyone’s nightmares, with a recent sleep study of just under 250 Americans finding 33.6 percent dream of masks or social distancing, 30 percent dream of illness in themselves or others, 15.4 percent are blessed with nightmares completely unrelated to the pandemic, 10.9 percent are cursed with politics dreams, and 1.6 percent reported having positive dreams which, I’m sorry, how do 1.6 percent of you even find a guy to do an Inception on you in a pandemic? Craigslist? Is that a Craigslist thing?

Robert Lee Hotz, The Wall Street Journal


There are an estimated 9 million feral swine in the United States, which went from roaming in 17 states 30 years ago to 38 states today. This is hardly a uniquely American problem: wherever there are both domestic pigs and European wild boar, the possibility for growth is explosive. The domestic pigs have been bred to be large, constantly fertile and have litters that average 10 per birth, while boars have evolved to survive in winter, live off the land, and be genuinely bright. The combination is an animal uniquely suited for explosive growth. Texas has 1.5 million feral pigs and spends $4 million a year to attempt to control them, but doesn’t make a dent. Canadians are looking at their own populations of feral hogs with abiding worry as their exponential growth potential combined with the low resources applied to controlling the population are building a “feral swine bomb.” The pigs’ territory is expanding at a rate of 35,000 square miles per year, and a projected domain of 386,000 square miles in Canada by the end of the 2020.

Diane Peters, Undark

Carbon Dating

In 2002, scientists who were trying to improve the precision of carbon dating began collecting crowdsourced data from around the world, right now 12,904 raw measurements. These are being fed into a new curve that will better calibrate the way we date things, reconciling the presence of isotopes within objects to specific calendar years. When first developed in the 1980s, the estimates were based off of tree rings, which only existed for a few thousand years. The new calibration — IntCal20 — has twice as much data as the previous time the curve was adjusted in 2013, covering 14,000 years, and could increase the confidence with which archaeologists can apply dates to finds.

Megan I. Gannon, Scientific American

Last Sunday in the subscriber special, I spoke to none other than Matt Yglesias, author of the new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger which is out today! The book is a fascinating case for a significant expansion of the U.S. population and a coherent set of policies to make that happen, you should check out the interview it’s a really good one and free to read for a short time.

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