Instructions for carrying heavy equipment at the Columbia University Computer Music Centre.

52 things I learned in 2017

Tom Whitwell
Magnetic Notes
Published in
7 min readDec 1, 2017


Between projects at Magnetic, and editing a book, I learned several learnings.

  1. In Silicon Valley, startups that result in a successful exit have an average founding age of 47 years.[Joshua Gans]
  2. Traders in Shenzhen electronics markets now rely on smartphone translation apps to communicate — not just with foreigners, but with people speaking other Chinese dialects. [Mark Pesce]
  3. “Artificial intelligence systems pretending to be female are often subjected to the same sorts of online harassment as women.” [Jacqueline Feldman]
  4. Laser Snake is a writhing robotic arm with a 5kw laser mounted on one end. It’s first job: cutting up old nuclear power stations. [James Condliffe]
  5. In the UK, marriages between couples over 65 have risen 46% over the last decade. [Cassie Werber]
  6. A cryptocurrency mining company called Genesis Mining is growing so fast that they rent Boeing 747s to ship graphics cards to their Bitcoin mines in Iceland. [Joon Ian Wong]
  7. Dana Lewis from Alabama built herself an artificial pancreas from off-the-shelf parts. Her design is open source, so people with diabetes can hack together solutions more quickly than drug companies. [Lee Roop]
  8. Taco Bell spent ten years trying to develop a cheese-stuffed taco shell, helped by a cheese promotion group called Dairy Management Inc, known as ‘the Illuminati of cheese’. After a successful trial, they’re “figuring out how to get robots to pick up cheese and put it on tortillas” for a full-scale launch. [Clint Rainey]
  9. The Pay-with-a-Selfie project is a micro-payment system funded by the Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation. [Ernesto Damiani et al]
  10. The first ATM cards were actually paper vouchers like cheques impregnated by a mildly radioactive substance called carbon 14. The machine detected it, then matched it against a pin number. [Chris Skinner]
  11. A Norwegian fertiliser company is building a $25m battery-powered unmanned robotic cargo ship to carry chemicals from a plant in Herøya to ports in Larvik and Norvik, replacing 40,000 lorry journeys a year. [Adam Minter]
  12. A Zimbabwean church pastor was not eaten by a crocodile while attempting to walk on water, and hurricanes with female names are not more deadly because people don’t take them seriously. [Kim LaCapria & Gary Smith]
  13. Vice media is worth more than the New York Times, Washington Post and Financial Times combined. [Matthew Garrahan]
  14. Swintec is a company in New Jersey that sells up to 5,000 typewriters a year to prisoners in the US. Their typewriters have clear plastic covers so inmates can’t hide anything inside. Transparent TVs, CD players and Walkmen are also available. [Daniel A Gross]
  15. Oxford Nanopore’s MinION is a USB-powered DNA sequencer the size of a Mars Bar. It costs $1,000, and they’re currently developing a SmidgION, which is the size of a USB stick and plugs into an iPhone. [Erika Hayden]
  16. In August, Virginia Tech built a fake driverless van — with the driver hidden inside the seat — to see how other drivers would react. Their reaction: “This is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.” [Adam Tuss] (Magnetic have also been experimenting with fake autonomous vehicles in Cambridge)
  17. Enthusiasts are building their own huge batteries for home energy storage from hundreds of salvaged laptop batteries. [Louise Matsakis]
  18. The National Health Service in the UK uses more than a tenth of the global stock of pagers. [The Economist]
  19. Chinese insurance startup Zhong An (a partnership between Alibaba and Tencent) sold one billion policies in its first year [Matthew Wong]
  20. GPS signals are being spoofed in some areas of Moscow: “the fake signal, which seems to centre on the Kremlin, relocates anyone nearby to Vnukovo Airport, 32 km away. The scale of the problem did not become apparent until people began trying to play Pokemon Go.” [Tyler Rogoway]
  21. One Friday in May 2017, Solar panels in the UK generated more energy than all eight of our nuclear power stations [Andrew Ward] (The National Grid is a Magnetic client — we helped them launch the National Grid Control Room Twitter Account)
  22. In 2006, nine hundred mothers in rural Pakistan suffering from postnatal depression were given cognitive behaviour therapy by health workers. Seven years later, researchers found the women were happier, more financially independent and better parents, “with monetary investment particularly favouring female children.” [Sonia Bhalotra & co, via Dina Pomeranz]
  23. Pine nuts are harvested from the ancient forests on the Chinese border with North Korea. Workers use hydrogen balloons to float alongside the trees and collect pine cones. Sometimes, the balloons escape. [Shen Wendi]
  24. According to a study of 100 million Facebook posts, the most effective three word phrase to use in a headline is “…will make you …” The most effective use of the phrase was “10+ Of The Happiest Dog Memes Ever That Will Make You Smile From Ear To Ear”, which was shared more than 600,000 times. [Steve Rayson]
  25. Women are eight times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is an alcoholic. [Sean Illing]
  26. Uber is the most lossmaking private company in tech history. [Leslie Hook]
  27. China opens around 50 high bridges each year. The entire rest of the world opens ten. [Chris Buckley]
  28. Videogame repair companies in New York report that up to 50% of Sony PS4 consoles they receive for repair are infested with cockroaches. The insects use the wide ventilation ducts on the bottom to move into the warm interior, mate and make a home. [Cecilia D’Anastacio]
  29. Amazon Echo can be useful for people suffering from Alzheimers’: “I can ask Alexa anything and I get the answer instantly. And I can ask it what day it is twenty times a day and I will still get the same correct answer.” [Rick Phelps]
  30. Beggars in China have sophisticated ways to collect payment; using QR Codes, WeChat accounts and in one case a Point Of Sale machine to collect donations. [Yicai Global]
  31. Meat hygiene inspectors at the Food Standards Agency (who Magnetic worked with this year) have a gruesome private Yammer group for sharing ‘pictures of interesting pathologies’ [Catherine Brown]
  32. In the early 1980s AT&T asked McKinsey to estimate how many cell phones would be in use in the world at the turn of the century. They concluded that the total market would be about 900,000 units. This persuaded AT&T to pull out of the market. By 2000, there were 738 million people with cellphone subscriptions. [Andrew Chen]
  33. Unscrupulous mobile phone recharging stations in Uttar Pradesh, India, are selling the phone numbers of female customers to male customers, who use them to harass the women. Numbers cost from Rs 50 (60p) to Rs 500 (£6) depending on how attractive the victim is. [Snigdha Poonam]
  34. An American TV viewer who watches Netflix rather than normal ad-funded television could avoid 160 hours of ads every year. That’s equivalent to a month of eight hour working days. [Dan Calladine]
  35. Chinese company Marvoto have developed a personal ultrasound machine (or ‘Smart portable fetus camera’) so expectant mothers can look at their child at any time. It also produces VR images. [Xu Yu]
  36. Zowoo is a chain of DIY carpentry workshops popping up in in shopping malls across China. [Si Qi]
  37. Pebble Post is a startup that lets websites send physical mail; if you abandon an item in an online shopping cart, you can get a reminder through the post the next day. [Dan O’Shea]
  38. Over 250 people were killed by dangerous driving caused by Pokemon Go players between July and November 2016, according to ‘speculative extrapolation’ of figures from one county in Indiana. [Mara Faccio & John J. McConnell]
  39. Psychologists and economists have realised that relying on college kids in their experiments gives spurious results because they’re based on Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (WEIRD) societies. These represent as much as 80 percent of study participants, but only 12 percent of the world’s population. [Joseph Henrich & co]
  40. For 11,111 yuan (£1,250), you can buy a lifetime’s supply of alcohol: 12 bottles of baijiu — a potent grain spirit — delivered to you every month for the rest of your life.[Wang Lianzhang]
  41. Men travelling first class tend to weigh more than those in economy, while for women the reverse is true. [Lucy Hooker]
  42. In 1980, there were 50,000 cases of polio worldwide. In 2016 there were 42. But there are still a handful of people relying on iron lungs built in the 1960s. [Jennings Brown]
  43. Each year, 28 million tonnes of dust (100,000 lorries’ worth) is picked up by wind from the Sahara desert, carried across the Atlantic and dropped on the Amazon basin. Some of the dust, from an ancient lake bed in Chad, is loaded with phosphorus, a crucial nutrient for the trees in the Amazon rainforest. [Rob Garner]
  44. A fifth of all the Google searches handled via the mobile app and Android devices are voice searches. [Eric Johnsa]
  45. Facebook employs a dozen people to delete abuse and spam from Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page. [Sarah Frier]
  46. Boogie at the Bar is a dementia-friendly afternoon disco at The Foundry pub in Aberdeen. It was founded by Anne Duncan, whose husband Bill was diagnosed with dementia in 2011. “Dancing transports Bill into a place where he was before his illness, so for us it is especially poignant. It is an enjoyable feeling when we dance — there is nothing to worry about in the whole world. It is amazing.” [Kali Lindsay]
  47. Hedge fund managers who own powerful sports cars take on more investment risk but do not deliver higher return. [Stephen Brown & co]
  48. In 1990, more than a third of people on Earth lived on less than $1.90 a day, adjusted for local prices. By 2013, barely 10 percent of people did. [Dylan Matthews]
  49. Pro tip: Ask your current customers “What nearly stopped you buying from us?” [Karl Blanks]
  50. Giving money to the poor reduces consumption of tobacco and alcohol. [Dan Kopf]
  51. Ratchair is a Korean research project creating autonomous furniture that can move by itself. It could result in self-tidying rooms. [Tetiana Parshakova & co]
  52. Ten out of twelve British water companies sometimes still use divining rods to search for leaks. [Sally Le Page] (Magnetic have been working with Severn Trent Water, who still use divining rods, to develop more sensible ways to find leaks)

Previous 52 things lists: 2014 2015 2016

You might also enjoy: Magnetic Heroes: People who inspire us or I spent two hours with a mobile video genius and learned 26 useful things.

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, BEIS and Severn Trent Water.



Tom Whitwell
Magnetic Notes

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