Light Dependent Resistors: fun, but illegal to sell in many countries because they contain cadmium

52 things I learned in 2021

Tom Whitwell
Dec 1, 2021 · 6 min read

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

  1. Every day, one million people upload pictures of their coffee grinds to the Turkish app Faladdin and get a personalised fortune reading back in 15 minutes. [Kaya Genç]
  2. In the early 19th century, cowpox vaccine was exported from Spain to the Americas in the arms of 24 Spanish orphan boys. [Sam Kean]
  3. Beauty livestreamer Li Jiaqi sold $1.9 billion worth of products in one twelve hour show on Taobao. That’s slightly less than the total sales from all four Selfridges stores during 2019. [Jinshan Hong]
  4. 10% of US electricity is generated from old Russian nuclear warheads. [Geoff Brumfiel]
  5. Some South African students sell school Wi-Fi passwords for lunch money. Residents walk up to 6km to connect to schools because 4G data is so expensive. [Kimberly Mutandiro]
  6. Productivity dysmorphia is the inability to see one’s own success, to acknowledge the volume of your own output. [Anna Codrea-Rado]
  7. The world’s second most popular electric car (after the Tesla Model 3) is the Wuling HongGuang Mini, which costs $5,000 and outsells vehicles from Renault, Hyundai, VW and Nissan. [Brad Anderson & José Pontes]
  8. Airline Food is a programming language whose programs look like Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routines. [Jamie Large]
  9. Early versions of PowerPoint were created by a technical team that was 43% women, compared to an average of 10% in Silicon Valley at the time. [Russell Davies — buy his book here from Fluxx friends World of Books]
  10. Short afternoon naps at the workplace lead to significant increases in productivity, psychological well-being and cognition. In contrast, an extra 30 minutes sleep at night shows no similar improvements. [Pedro Bessone]
  11. Almost 30 years after he died, the remains of Mexican architect Luis Barragán were converted into a two carat diamond by a conceptual artist. The diamond was offered to his family in return for access to his privately-owned archive. It didn’t work, and the whole story is 🤯. [Alice Gregory]
  12. How to write good email subject lines: Keep it short (33 characters), avoid journalistic assumptions, never stop experimenting. [Brad Wolverton]
  13. In the 1980s, if you wanted to draw a graph, count the words in a document or even print in landscape format, you had to buy a separate computer program costing $50-$100. [Benedict Evans]
  14. Wearing noise cancelling headphones in an open-plan office helps a little bit — reducing cognitive errors by 14% — but actual silence reduces those errors by one third. [Benjamin Müller & co]
  15. The Chinese government is cracking down on ‘excessively entertaining’ content in favour of shows like Flash Cafe, in which “musicians to come in, have a chat and some coffee” and is sponsored by Maxwell House. [Avery Booker]
  16. If you want useful answers, ask questions that respect the answerer’s time, energy and attention. [Josh Kaufman]
  17. The battery in the new electric Hummer will weigh almost as much as an original Land Rover. [Saul Griffith]
  18. Most ransomware is designed not to install on computers that have Russian or Ukrainian language keyboards. [Brian Krebs]
  19. Near my home in South London, it’s common to see railings made out of surplus WW2 stretchers. [AdOYo]
  20. Women’s relative earnings increase 4% when their manager becomes the father of a daughter, rather than a son. This daughter effect was found in 25 years of Danish small-business data. [Maddalena Ronchi via Tyler Cowen]
  21. The median estimated body-mass index of cabinet ministers is highly correlated with conventional measures of corruption. [Pavlo Blavatskyy via The Economist, who Fluxx + mN have been working with this year]
  22. Bimagrumab is a monoclonal antibody that reduces weight and increases muscle mass. [Stephan J. Guyenet]
  23. In the 1930s, people didn’t watch movies from start to finish: “You strolled down the street and sallied into the theatre at any hour of the day or night. Like you’d go in to have a drink at a bar.” [Orson Welles via Jason Kottke]
  24. Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was either a racist prank by an orthopaedic surgeon in 1968, or part of an even stranger hoax by that same surgeon 49 years later. [Ira Glass via Daniel Soar]
  25. Until 1873, Japanese hours varied by season. There were six hours between sunrise and sunset, so a daylight hour in summer was 1/3rd longer than an hour in winter. [Sara J. Schechner]
  26. The indicators on Mini cars sold in the US are foolish. [Jason Torchinsky]
  27. Baileys Irish Cream was invented in 45 minutes in 1973 by two ad creatives in Soho. [David Gluckman via the Situationist email]
  28. ‘Clocked’ screws are when every slot points in the same direction. It’s surprisingly difficult to do. [Christopher Schwarz]
  29. Of more than 195,000 software companies listed on Crunchbase, less than 15% have taken any external funding, and over 97% are based outside of Silicon Valley. [Joanne Yuan]
  30. The Japanese zip company YKK also produce zip-themed anime. [YKK via Josh Centers]
  31. Good quality audio seems to make you sound 19% cleverer. [Thomas McKinlay]
  32. We’ve been drawing butterflies wrong forever. [Emily Damstra]
  33. In 2020 there was a brief panic about Americans being sent mysterious packages of seeds from China. It turns out (spoiler warning) that they just ordered the seeds, forgot about them, then got swept up in all the excitement. [Chris Heath]
  34. Ford has applied to patent a method to identify bad smells in shared cars, then transfer passengers into less smelly cars. [Mihir Maddireddy]
  35. Clean rooms used to make semiconductors have to be 1,000x cleaner than a surgical operating theatre, because a single transistor is now much smaller than a virus. [Ian King]
  36. The HSN-3000 is a component (used in B2 Bombers) that detects a nuclear blast, turns off your computer, then turns it back on again. [John McHale]
  37. The notion of a personal ‘Carbon Footprint’ was invented by Ogilvy & Mather for BP in the early 2000s. [Mark Kaufman]
  38. Your memory resets when you walk through a door, even when that door is on a screen. [Matt Webb]
  39. Modern canes used by blind people are far more complicated, sophisticated and varied than you might think. [Derek Riemer]
  40. Social media headlines are evolving fast. Since 2017, they’ve got shorter (11 words vs 15 words), and many clickbait phrases like “…will make you…” or “things only … will understand” no longer work. [Louise Linehan & co]
  41. We produce 200x more new computers per second than new human beings. [David Holz]
  42. Weightlifting and protein shakes for dogs are now a big thing. [Sarah Kessler] (At Fluxx + mN we’ve been working with Mars to understand the future of pet nutrition, but not like this…)
  43. Privacy seems to be connected to productivity. An experiment in a phone factory showed that putting curtains round workers on a production line increased output by 10–15%. [Ethan Bernstein via Ethan Mollick]
  44. A community of 100 Zimbabweans have been clearing mines in the Falkland Islands for the last decade. [Pablo Porciuncula Brune]
  45. Adding nature imagery (grass, trees, rainbows) to a pitch document seems to increase the likelihood of investment a little. [Koen van Boxel & co, via Ed Curwen]
  46. The Khmer language has 74 characters, making it annoying to type on a phone keyboard. That may be why half of Facebook Messenger’s voice traffic comes from Cambodia. [Vittoria Elliot & Bopha Phorn]
  47. The entire global cosmetic Botox industry is supported by an annual production of just a few milligrams of botulism toxin. Pure toxin would cost ~$100 trillion per kilogram. [Anthony Warner]
  48. China opens a giant electric car battery factory every week. In the rest of the world, they open every few months. [Simon Moores]
  49. In 51% of cases, fake elective surgery — with anaesthetic and incision, but nothing more — works just as well as real surgery. [via Christie Aschwanden]
  50. For $64/hour you can hire an LA photo studio that looks like the interior of a private jet, to impress people on Instagram. [Nana Baah]
  51. In the 1970s, Kodak started to reformulate their photographic films to better represent dark brown colours because they’d had complaints from chocolate companies and wooden furniture manufacturers. It wasn’t until 1995 that they introduced a calibration card showing non-white faces. [Lorna Roth]
  52. A study of 14,000 Australians over 14 years found that neither being promoted nor being fired has any impact on either emotional wellbeing or life satisfaction. [Nathan Kettlewell & co]

Previous 52 things lists: 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020

You might enjoy: 10 lessons about creativity & productivity from The Beatles

Tom Whitwell is Managing Consultant at Fluxx + mN, a company that uses experiments to understand customers, helping clients solve big problems and build better products. We work with The Economist, Mars, WSP, Innovate UK, Bupa, Condé Nast, National Grid, Channel 4, Severn Trent Water and others. You can get in touch with Tom at:

(If you’ve got this far, maybe you should come and work with me.)

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