Numlock News: October 29, 2020 • Guitars, Tortoise, Microgrids
By Walt Hickey
Coal plants have been folding nationwide amid the advent of cheaper natural gas, dropping prices for renewables and opposition to coal as a source of power. For Wyoming, this development is quite bad, as the state is the primary domestic supplier of coal in the United States. In an arrangement described by experts as highly irregular, the state of Wyoming, in fact, directly funds a 501(c)(4) nonprofit called the Energy Policy Network that lobbies states endeavoring to close their coal-burning power plants to keep them in service, often at enormous costs to taxpayers of those states: it cost $500 million to ratepayers in Oklahoma to keep a coal-fired plant in service in 2016, and the Energy Policy Network organized the opposition to its closure, with the end result being 2.6 million tons of Wyoming coal per year being burned by Oklahoma Gas & Electric. That it’s funded directly by Wyoming tax dollars — $250,000 per year, with another $500,000 approved for another two years — is particularly weird because states don’t usually do that. It’s not like Massachusetts has some lobbyist in Jersey begging them to make sure the Jets stay bad.
Federal law enforcement have busted what they describe to be an enormous telemarketing scam that they claim is the largest-ever elder fraud case, with allegations that over 20 years about 60 people in the United States and Canada defrauded 183,000 victims out of $335 million. The alleged conspiracy involved scammers finding people who had expensive magazine subscriptions, then signing them up for more of them, billing them from as many as 10 fake companies and in some cases fleecing them for $1,000 per month, with the primary target described by prosecutors as the elderly. The investigation stemmed from an earlier indictment, after agents asked victims of another magazine-related scam if anyone else was currently bleeding them dry over magazines.
It’s been an incredibly difficult year for cheese. From January through mid-March, the price for a pound of block cheddar on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange reliably went for between $1.75 and $2 per pound. When the pandemic began and the question became, “how are we supposed to deal with all this cheese nobody is consuming at a restaurant?” prices dropped to a 17-year low of $1.00 per pound on April 15. Then the government began a $3 billion purchase of produce, meat and dairy, which dragged prices back up to an all-time high of $3.00 per pound in July, before quickly collapsing back down to $1.58 per pound by August 11. This process continued — government purchases have pushed the price of a pound of block cheddar to $2.77 per pound as of October 27 — and while it’s always nice to be in-demand, the cheese business has the sweats after a fairly wild summer.
In 2019 the United States installed 546 microgrids, which are clusters of energy generators — lately, lots of small solar installations but this also entails more traditional generator types — that are designed to keep the lights on in the event of a larger outage on the regular grid. One motivation for them is what you’d imagine — people like having power when things get weird, especially hospitals and colleges — and the microgrids have been increasingly seen as useful amid more frequent wildfires and storms. The pandemic has dampened demand, but last week a Tesla executive revealed the car company is operating 120 microgrids, one indication of larger corporate interest in the systems.
WE GOT HIM
A 60-year-old 200 pound African tortoise named Sparkplug escaped his home in Sardis City, Alabama and made a break for it last Thursday. The tortoise, whose owner indicated is originally from New Jersey and is now in the care of a former animal sanctuary owner, made it across two counties before being captured and returned home. The owners did not fear for his safety in terms of other wildlife — not a lot of stuff in the soybean fields of Alabama are going to present a problem for a tortoise — but hoped to have him back before the cold. The report is fairly sketchy on the details, but I imagine attempting to jump the barbed wire fence separating Germany from Switzerland on a stolen motorcycle looked absolutely sick, but did not help Sparkplug evade his pursuers.
The market for comic books in North America is in rebound after an incredibly difficult spring, with the current estimate that somewhere between 7 million and 7.5 million comics were sold in the month of September to the direct market of comic book shops. That’s comparable to the 7.57 million copies sold by Diamond in September 2019, when it functionally controlled distribution for the whole market, and is well north of the 5.92 million moved in March 2020 when shutdowns were just beginning. Most interestingly, there are fewer books, but they’re selling better: across all publishers there were 356 new comic books in the month of September, down 25 percent from the 471 in March and 20 percent lower than the 443 new books in September 2019.
Time To Fret
In the lower Mississippi, the winter and spring floods lead the hardwood ash tree forests to produce thin-walled cells with big gaps between them. This specific ash wood — marinated for a little while, but not for too long, in the Mississippi River — is strong but low-density, and highly sought-after by musical instrument manufacturers. Fender has used it to make guitars since the ‘50s, but threats to the forests led the company to stop using the beloved swamp ash in Stratocasters and Telecasters and begin only using the wood in classics. The reason is that climate-fueled flooding lasts longer, which kills saplings and makes the trees that can be harvested very hard to get to. Further, an invasive tree-boring beetle has not yet made it to the lower Mississippi, but will soon. This is one reason lumber companies are rushing to bank as much swamp ash as they can now — they used to take just 30 percent of adult ash trees in a designated area, but in 2015 began logging anything they could find — to try to beat the beetles and bank wood while they still can.
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2020 Sunday subscriber editions: The Mouse · Subprime Attention Crisis · Factory Farms · Streaming Summer · Dynamite · One Billion Americans · Defector · Seams of the Grid · Bodies of Work · Working in Public · Rest of World ·