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52 things I learned in 2020

Tom Whitwell
Dec 1, 2020 · 7 min read

This year I edited another book, worked on fascinating projects at Fluxx, and learned many learnings.

  1. Most cities plant only male trees because it’s expensive to clear up the fruit that falls from female trees. Male trees release pollen, and that’s one of the reasons your hay fever is getting worse. [Jessica Price]
  2. In China, 🙂 doesn’t mean happy, it means “a despising, mocking, and even obnoxious attitude”. Use these, instead: 😁😄😀. [Echo Huang]
  3. The hold music you hear when you phone Octopus Energy is personalised to your customer account: it’s a number one record from the year you were 14. [Clem Cowton]
  4. If Apple AirPods was a standalone business (founded 2016, $12bn revenue, 125% growth, 30–50% margin), it would probably be the most valuable startup in the world. [Kevin Rooke]
  5. Sarcasm detection has been a serious problem in computer science since the mid 2000s [Martin Gardiner]
  6. All of the ten best-selling books of the last decade had female protagonists [Tyler Cowen]
  7. In February, shares in Zoom Technologies rose by 50%. Unfortunately, it was the wrong company. The video conferencing company’s stock is listed as ZM not ZOOM, and the other Zoom has been out of business for years. [Luke McGrath]
  8. When Ibn Battuta visited China in 1345, facial recognition was already in use. All visiting foreigners had their portraits discreetly painted and posted on the walls of the bazaar. “If a stranger commits any offence… they send his portrait far and wide” [Ibn Battuta]
  9. Money makes people happier than psychotherapy. [Johannes Haushofer & co]
  10. Doctors in a private hospital in Mexico City conducted a functional MRI scan on a patient while she underwent an exorcism, in order to learn “the possessor’s strategy to take control of the mind.” Afterwards, so many strange things happened to the 16-person team involved in the exorcism that they published a follow-up paper. [Jose Luis Mosso Vazquez: Initial report , intense follow up]
  11. Euro English is an evolving pidgin English used by EU administrators, for example: using ‘Handy’ to mean mobile phone (from German), ‘Non?’ to turn any sentence into a question and unusual plurals like ‘expertises”. [Lindsey Johnstone]
  12. In the Thames Estuary, about 40 miles east of London, is a shipwreck from WW2 containing 14,000 unexploded bombs. If they blew up, it could send a five metre tsunami up the river. [Joe Zadeh]
  13. When users download the Kenyan mobile loans app OKash, the T&Cs quietly give it permission to access their contacts. If they fall behind in repayments, the app starts to message all those contacts — family, colleagues, ex-partners — to shame the user into repaying the debt. [Morris Kiruga]
  14. The inventor of the pixel died in 2020 aged 91. He always regretted making pixels square, describing the decision as “something very foolish that everyone in the world has been suffering from ever since.” [DL Cade]
  15. In just eight years, the British National Grid went from being 40% coal powered to 2% coal powered. [Simon Evans] (Fluxx has been working with National Grid for many years)
  16. When swimming became popular in England in the 19th century, the new municipal swimming pools displayed frogs in tubs, so that would-be swimmers could learn from their movements. [Iris Murdoch]
  17. Nearly 10% of the revenue of the nation of Tuvalu comes from its control of the .tv domain used by companies like twitch.tv [Alexander Lee]
  18. The psychology of gift giving and receiving is fascinating and fairly well researched. In short: ask them what they want and give them that. [Will Patrick]
  19. Developing and launching the iPod in 2001 took just 41 weeks, from the very first meeting (no team, no prototype, no design) to iPods shipping to customers. [Patrick Collison]
  20. Posting a photo of your boarding pass on Instagram is a bad idea, particularly if you’re the former PM of Australia [Alex Hope]
  21. For the first time ever, Americans are saying they want more immigration, not less. [Mohamed Younis]
  22. Lab-grown meat start-ups have a secret: Those cultured burgers are grown in a fantastically expensive liquid called Fetal Bovine Serum. It’s exactly what it sounds like. [Matt Reynolds]
  23. A generation of car enthusiasts that grew up playing Gran Turismo mean that you can now pay more for a ’90s Toyota Supra than you would for an E-Type Jaguar. [Jacob Oliva]
  24. 40% of smartphones in Africa are made by Shenzhen phone company Transsion, which has developed production lines in Ethiopia, Swahili and Amharic keyboards and cameras, flashes and imaging software tailored for darker skin tones. [Andrew Deck]
  25. The phrase ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ was invented by a police psychiatrist to discredit a female hostage in a 1973 bank heist who criticised the police. [Jess Hill]
  26. A fully-dressed 20th century man would carry 78 buttons and have 24 pockets. [Hannah Carlson]
  27. For VC companies in 2004, the average time from first contact to funding was 90 days. Today, it’s just nine days. [Dan Primack]
  28. The human vision system involves time-shifting: your brain is fooled into thinking it has seen something before it happened. That’s why, when you glance at a second hand, it seems to take longer than a second to move. [Foone Turing]
  29. In the early 2000s, the CIA abandoned operations in Singapore because the surveillance was so ubiquitous: “If it took too long for a traveler to get from the airport to a hotel in a taxi, that anomaly would trigger an alert… they’d go to the hotel, flip on the TVs and phones and monitor what was going on” [Jenna McLaughlin and Zach Dorfman]
  30. In Warsaw’s Gruba Kaśka water plant there are eight clams with sensors attached to their shells. If the clams close because they don’t like the taste of the water, the city’s supply is automatically shut off. [Judita K]
  31. When bar codes were patented in 1952, they were round [Sarah Laskow]
  32. A 70% dilution of isopropyl alcohol is better at killing bacteria, fungi, and viruses than ‘pure’ 99% isopropyl alcohol, for several distinct reasons. [Mitch Walleser]
  33. Epidemiologists at Emory University in Atlanta believe that raising the mimimim wage in the US by $1 would have prevented 27,550 suicides since 1990. [John A Kaufman & Co, via The Economist]
  34. Games Workshop, owner of Warhammer, is worth more than Centrica, owner of British Gas. [Allister Thomas]
  35. The rule of 72 is a way to estimate how long it will take for something double. So, if sign-ups are growing by 5% each week, they will take roughly 14 weeks (72÷5) to double, assuming you don’t have any churn… [Robert Vitillo] (Fluxx have been helping The Economist develop new subscription products)
  36. Musical octaves may be learned, rather than naturally wired into the brain: the Tsimané people of lowland Bolivia, who rarely sing together or with instruments, seem to be unable to perceive octaves. [Elena Renken]
  37. Humans have a stereo sense of smell: our two nostrils work like two ears to subconsciously help us move towards the source of a smell. [Yuli Wu]
  38. 報復性熬夜 is a Chinese term that roughly means ‘Revenge bedtime procrastination’ — when “people who don’t have much control over their daytime life refuse to sleep early in order to regain some sense of freedom during late night hours”. [Lu-Hai Liang]
  39. The first telephone consultation was in 1879, just three years after the telephone was invented: A doctor listened to a child’s cough over the phone, offered a diagnosis (“It’s not the croup”) and treatment (“Settle down and get some sleep”). [Sidney H Aronson] (Fluxx have been helping Bupa optimise remote working)
  40. Some test equipment is made from lead harvested from millennia-old Roman shipwrecks. [Robin George Andrews]
  41. Attractive criminals receive lighter sentences than unattractive criminals. In one study, unattractive criminals were fined 3 x more than attractive criminals for moderate misdemeanours. However, appearance doesn’t seem to influence verdicts of guilt or innocence. [Rod Hollier]
  42. You can learn a lot from Lego control panels. [George Cave]
  43. NYC redesigned their summons system for low-level criminal offences, adding text reminders. The new system prevented 30,000 arrest warrants over 3 years. [Tage Rai]
  44. A micromort is a one-in-a-million chance of death. Just being alive is about 24 micromorts per day, skydiving is 8 micromorts per jump. [Matt Webb]
  45. In 2014, the International Energy Authority forecast how the price of solar power would fall over the next half century. After just six years, we’re 40 years ahead of expectations. [Ramez Naam](Fluxx have been helping Legal & General develop new ‘net zero’ products to fund Solar Power developments in the UK)
  46. When you lose 1kg of weight, around 840g of that weight is exhaled as carbon dioxide. [Ruben Meerman & Andrew Brown]
  47. In the 1970s, the CIA created a laser-guided, liquid-fuelled dragonfly-sized drone. In 2017, researchers equipped a real genetically-modified dragonfly with a solar-powered backpack and steering implants to turn it into a drone. [Then: Alison Marsh Now: Evan Ackerman]
  48. Car safety laws in the US make it more expensive to have three children — women in states with mandated car seats are 0.7% less likely to have a third child. The safety measures may have saved 57 car crash fatalities each year, but caused 145,000 fewer births since 1980. [Jordan Nickerson & David H. Solomon]
  49. The gas bags inside hydrogen airships of the 1930s were made from the outer layer of a cow’s intestines. Joined together when wet, the living tissues grow together, creating an impermeable bond. The gas bags of the Graf Zeppelin were made from the guts of around half a million cows. [Mark Steadman]
  50. 78 year-old pharmacist Bill Pagel collects Bob Dylan memorabilia. He owns 15,000 photos, 4,000 posters and two houses that Bob Dylan lived in as a child. [Jon Bream]
  51. Biased debugging is a problem in data-heavy research. When code produces an unexpected result, it is checked for errors. But when it produces an expected result, it’s left unchecked. [Chris Chambers]
  52. British clowns register their unique makeup patterns by having them hand painted onto chicken eggs. The eggs are then stored either at the Holy Trinity Church in Dalston or at Wookey Hole caves in Somerset. [Dave Fagundes & Aaron Perzanowski]

Previous 52 things lists: 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019

I’m co-hosting an event on 14th December, and you’re welcome to join me: Fluxx Talks: How successful leaders are looking forward, not back

Tom Whitwell is Managing Consultant at Fluxx, a company that uses experiments to understand customers, helping clients to build better products. We work with The Economist, Mars, Bupa, Condé Nast, National Grid, BEIS, Severn Trent Water and others. You can get in touch with Tom at: tom.whitwell@fluxx.uk.com

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