Carving swans from apples at a Blenheim Forge workshop in April.

52 things I learned in 2016

Tom Whitwell
Magnetic Notes
Published in
7 min readDec 1, 2016


My first full year working at Magnetic on a series of fascinating projects and learning about...

  1. Call Me Baby is a call centre for cybercriminals who need a human voice as part of a scam. They charge $10 for each call in English, and $12 for calls in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish. [Brian Krebs]
  2. Google’s advertising tools can track real-world shop visits. If a customer sees an ad then visits the relevant store a few days later, that conversion will appear in Google Adwords. Customers are tracked via (anonymised) Google Maps data. They’ve been doing this since 2014. [Matt Lawson]
  3. In a mixed-gender group, when women talk 25% of the time or less, it’s seen as being “equally balanced”. If women talk 25–50% of the time, they’re seen as “dominating the conversation” [Caitlin Moran]
  4. In July, 800,000 volunteers planted 49 million trees in Uttar Pradesh, India. [Brian Clark Howard]
  5. Forty per cent of adults (aged 16 to 60) in OECD countries can’t use a computer well enough to delete an email. [Jakob Nielsen]
  6. A Japanese insurance company is offering policies that cover social media backlash. [Tyler Cowen]
  7. Abu Dhabi numberplate “1” sold for Dh31m (£6.8m) in November. However, the cheque bounced, and the buyer was arrested. [Asma Samir and Tom Crampton]
  8. Australian musicians have performed with a synthesiser controlled by a petri dish of live human neurons: “The neurons were fed dopamine before the gig and went ballistic. The interaction with the drummer was very tight. The drum hits are processed into triggers and sent to the neurons.” [Andrew Finch and Guy Ben-Ary]
  9. Less than 20% of Tencent’s (the creator of WeChat) revenues come from advertising, compared to over 95% for Facebook. [Connie Chan]
  10. Opendoor is a controversial startup with this simple offer: “We’ll buy your home for market price, based off an algorithm, within 72 hours.” [Real Estate Pundit]
  11. There are six million iPhones in Iran, despite them being banned by both the Iranian government and international sanctions. [Christopher Schroeder]
  12. Pork scratchings are good for you. [Michael Ruhlman]
  13. The percentage of older Americans with dementia has fallen by almost 25% since 2000. In other words, a million fewer people had dementia in 2012 than we’d have expected in 2000. [Sharon Begley]
  14. A Californian company called Skinny Mirror sells mirrors that make you look thinner. When installed in the changing rooms of clothes shops, they can increase sales by 18%. [Kim Bhasin]
  15. “Bangladesh was hit by a massive cyclone in May. Half a million people were evacuated, and thanks to early warning systems and shelters, only 23 people died. Cyclone deaths in the country have fallen by 98 percent since the systems were developed following a 1991 cyclone in which 140,000 people died.” The system involves 2,500 huge concrete cyclone shelters that are also used as schools. [Charles Kenny + watch this video about the Indian version of the shelters]
  16. In Hong Kong, you can buy a $15,000 device called an IMSI Catcher which harvests the mobile phone numbers of everyone walking past, collecting up to 1,200 numbers a minute. [Ben Bryant]
  17. Uber — which offers bank accounts to new drivers who don’t have their own account — is the largest acquirer of small business bank accounts in the USA today. [Brett King]
  18. Absurdly expensive items on restaurant menus have a positive halo effect on the rest of the prices; “When there’s a $1,000 frittata on the menu, suddenly $26 for French toast seems reasonable.” [Anne Kadet]
  19. In 2013, the Dubai Government launched a scheme encouraging healthy living by offering a gramme of gold for every kilo of weight lost. [Nancy Shute] (see also: 48 things I learned while designing a new bank in Dubai)
  20. Asking a user for their password once, instead of twice, could improve form conversion rates by 56%. [Tom New]
  21. The most expensive search keyword in the UK is “Play Live Blackjack”. One ad click on that results page could cost the advertiser £148.51. [Chris Lake]
  22. In September, the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority signed “the cheapest contract for electricity ever signed, anywhere on planet earth, using any technology” using solar power. [Ramez Naam]
  23. PornHub used 1,892 petabytes of bandwidth in 2015, equivalent to filling all the storage on all of the iPhones sold in 2015 with porn. [Yana Tallon-Hicks]
  24. Lyft recruits, trains and manages new drivers almost entirely via text messages from disposable Twilio VOIP phone numbers. [The Driver] (Magnetic is doing a lot of work in transport and mobility, including the M25 Hackathon)
  25. El Paquete is the underground Cuban Internet; a 1TB hard disk filled with US music, films, TV shows, magazines and smartphone apps, passed around by street dealers. You can copy what you like for $8 a week. “My friends assure me, El Paquete and chill is definitely a thing” [Wil Fulton]
  26. Twitter has enough money in the bank to run for 412 years with current losses. [Matt Krantz]
  27. Didi Chuxing the Chinese ride-hailing service, installed touchscreen booths all around Shanghai so that people (especially the elderly) could still hail a car without having a smartphone. [Connie Chan]
  28. Tuareg guitar players really like Dire Straits [Sam Backer]
  29. “Single escalators have a higher capacity than double escalators, because passengers don’t dither trying to work out which escalator to take.” [Jack May]
  30. Iranian ecommerce entrepreneur Nazanin Daneshvar found that business partners didn’t take her seriously when she went to meetings wearing her hijab. So she hired her Dad, a power station manager who knows nothing about the Internet. He’d turn up, introduce himself as her manager, remain silent for the rest of the meeting while she did the deals, then sign the contract at the end. After 18 months, her company Takhfifan had over two million users across Iran, and Dad was finally able to ‘retire’. [Christopher Schroeder]
  31. How farmers in Myanmar use the Internet: “Facebook is most popular? Yes. Everyone wants? Everyone. Do people have email addresses? No. He makes the email addresses. Has a stack of pre-made Facebook accounts at the ready. He pre-installs the app and pre-loads friends. Farmers don’t use their real names. ‘I used my son’s name,’ Farmer fourteen told us. Why? ‘Because it’s a good name!’ he said smiling and patting his 1-year-old son on the head.” [Craig Mod]
  32. Most iPhone case manufacturers don’t get advance notice from Apple about new designs; they rely on rumours. Case maker Hard Candy went out of business after producing 50,000 custom-moulded cases for a leaked iPhone design that never appeared. [Tim Fitzsimmons]
  33. When they launched, both Mastercard and Visa were not-for-profit membership organisations [David S Evans]
  34. Projects at the ‘Stupid shit that no one needs and terrible ideas’ hackathon in February included a browser plugin that hides content but shows ads, a 3D cheese printer and a Dark Web wedding list service. [Sam Lavigne & Amelia Winger-Bearskin]
  35. The Edit has sold 50,000 vinyl records though an SMS chatbot. [Christopher Heine]
  36. Those beautiful tree-covered skyscrapers probably won’t look as good in real life as they do in the renders. [Mark Minkjan]
  37. There is a 2,150-member Facebook group called “WE WANT TESCO IN PORTREE, ISLE OF SKYE” [Dean Wilson]
  38. To reduce PTSD in drone pilots, military psychologists have considered developing a Siri-like app for the pilots. The pilots would ‘let crews shunt off the blame for whatever happens. Siri, have those people killed.’ [Robbie Gonzalez]
  39. Women launch more than half of all new Internet companies in China. [Shai Oster]
  40. A Swiss perfume company worked with the Gates Foundation to create an artificial scent that smells exactly like a pit latrine. [Bill Gates]
  41. Studying a $50 smartphone that sends text messages to China every 72 hours, experts said: “it is not clear whether this represents secretive data mining for advertising purposes or a Chinese government effort to collect intelligence.” [Matt Apuzzo]
  42. Japan Airlines serves KFC to economy class travellers during the Christmas season. The in-flight KFC has 15% more salt to compensate for the lower pressure and humidity. [Alison Fensterstock]
  43. At least one Silicon Valley company employs a receptionist who lives in New Delhi and appears in their offices via telepresence robot. [Brad Loncar]
  44. The cure for scurvy (citrus fruit) was discovered and proved in 1601 by Captain James Lancaster. The innovation wasn’t adopted across the British Navy and Merchant Navy until 264 years later, in 1865. [Everett Rogers]
  45. Chinese livestreaming services have banned ‘erotic banana eating’ [Connie Chan]
  46. A Dutch bike manufacturer reduced shipping damage by 70–80% by printing a flatscreen TV on their boxes. [May Bulman]
  47. A town in New York State plans to spend $167,000 a year hiring Ubers for commuters, to avoid spending $15m building them a new car park at the station. [Leslie Hook]
  48. Intervision, the 70s Soviet answer to the Eurovision Song Contest, was judge by electricity grid voting: “those watching at home had to turn their lights on when they liked a song and off when they didn’t, with data from the electricity network then being used to allocate points.” [Nick Heady] (Magnetic have been working with National Grid on several projects this year)
  49. In rural China, farmers sometimes steal natural gas in huge plastic bags. A bag of natural gas is enough fuel for up to one week. [Hi She]
  50. iPhone maker Foxconn has replaced more than half its workforce with robots since the iPhone 6 was launched. [Ben Lovejoy]
  51. Instead of batteries, the ARES project in Nevada uses a network of train tracks, a hillside and electric trains loaded with rocks to store wind and solar power. When there is a surplus of energy, the trains drive up the tracks. When output falls, the cars roll back down the hill, their electric motors acting as generators. [Robson Fletcher]
  52. The Earth has 7.6bn mobile accounts for 7.3bn people. [Tomi Ahonen]

You might also enjoy: 13 things Louis Theroux can teach us about user research

Previously: 52 things I learned in 2015, The first rule of pricing is: you do not talk about pricing.

Tom Whitwell is Senior Consultant at Magnetic, a company that uses experiments to understand customers, helping clients to build better products. We work with organisations such as Atkins, National Grid, the Parliamentary Digital Service and William Hill.



Tom Whitwell
Magnetic Notes

Consultant at Magnetic (formerly Fluxx), reformed journalist, hardware designer.