Dad’s paint samples in Bristol, August 2018

52 things I learned in 2018

Tom Whitwell
Magnetic Notes
Published in
7 min readDec 2, 2018


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

  1. A well-reviewed restaurant in Maine now only accepts reservations by post. [Clint Rainey]
  2. “Venture capital firms that increased their proportion of female partner hires by 10%… had 9.7% more profitable exits.” [Paul Gompers & Silpa Kovvali]
  3. Elon Musk’s $500 flamethrower is not a flamethrower. [Kane Hsieh]
  4. 35% of Rwanda’s national blood supply outside the capital city is now delivered by drone. [Techmoran]
  5. Advertisers place a single brown pixel on a bright background in a mobile ad. It looks like dust, so users try to wipe it off. That registers as a click, and the user is taken to the homepage. [Lauren Johnson]
  6. In Uganda, half the population is under the age of 15. [Tom Jackson]
  7. Peppa Pig tattoos are big in China. [Kenrick Davis]
  8. AgriProtein is a British company that operates two fly farms in South Africa. Each farm contains 8.4 billion flies, which consume 276 tonnes of food waste and lay 340 million eggs each day. Those eggs (maggots) are dehydrated, flattened and used as animal feed. The company is worth $200m, and they’re planning to open 100 more factories around the world by 2024. [Andrea Lo]
  9. Those weirdly expensive books on Amazon could be part of a money laundering scheme. [Brian Krebs]
  10. In 2015, the Billboard top 200 featured twice as many acoustic guitars as electric guitars. [Brandon Gaille]
  11. In Terence Conran’s garden there is an 18' tall birch gazebo designed by Thomas Heatherwick. “A few years ago, James Dyson, the vacuum-cleaner entrepreneur, dislodged the top of it while landing a helicopter on the lawn; it has since been repaired.” [Ian Parker]
  12. LOT is a $1,200/year clothing subscription service that comes with high-concept accessories like hair bleach & a tattoo gun. [Kyle Chayka]
  13. US nuclear testing between the 1940s and 1970s may have killed as many Americans (from radioactive pollution) as were killed by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. [Tim Fernholz]
  14. In April, a team at National Taiwan University created an automated Instagram comment generator that can look at images and leave replies that are convincingly human. Sample robo-comment: “I love your shoes!!! HYPED!” [Kuan-Ting Chen] (Magnetic spent a lot of 2018 working on a fascinating fashion-related project for Condé Nast)
  15. No known machine learning system can reliably tell a bird from a bicycle when a human is trying to trick the system. [Tom B Brown]
  16. Times Newer Roman looks almost exactly like Times New Roman, but each character is 5–10 wider. That means a 15 page, 12pt document contains just over 5,800 words. The same page count in Times New Roman would require over 6,600 words. Result! [Tina Roth Eisenberg]
  17. By optimising their email subject lines to be short, negative, surprising and full of brand names, CB Insights earned an extra $625,000 per year. [Anand Sanwal]
  18. Vintage memes have become collectable: Ding Xinyi, 21, from Shanghai, has become an “antique” meme collector in the last year. “The more fuzzy the pixel is, the better the memes are,” Ding says. “People who use high-definition memes must be newcomers to meme collection.” [Mo Hong’e]
  19. Air crews are exposed to more radiation than people who work at nuclear power stations. [Dave Mosher]
  20. In 2016, Singapore police reported 135 total days without any crimes including snatch-theft, house break-ins and robbery. [Uptin Saiidi]
  21. On Netflix, the artwork is personalised based on your viewing history. An Uma Thurman fan will see the classic Pulp Fiction poster showing Uma, but a John Travolta fan will be shown a different image. [Ashok Chandrashekar & co] (This also had more sinister consequences).
  22. Expensive placebos work better than cheap placebos. [Derek Lowe]
  23. Fake acupuncture works as well as real acupuncture. [Scott Alexander]
  24. Cassidy Williams had a dream about a Scrabble-themed mechanical keyboard. When she woke up, she started cold-calling Hasbro to ask for permission to make it real. Eventually, she made it happen. [Cassidy Williams]
  25. A typical West End Show needs to charge £27.92 per ticket to break even. So if you buy a discounted £15 ticket, you’re being paid almost £13 to sit through the show. [Richard Howle]
  26. Men who’ve experienced earthquakes are willing to take more risks and gamble more. Women show no such effect. [Chie Hanaoka & co]
  27. There is a small but thriving startup scene in Mogadishu, Somalia. [Abdi Latif Dahir]
  28. SafeMotos is a Uber-like app for motorbike taxis in Rwanda, which are notoriously dangerous. The drivers’ app uses the phone’s accelerometer to rate driver safety. [Alexandra Petri]
  29. Fortune Cookie Advertising is exactly what you’d expect, and it works because “when [customers] see the ad on the back, they are likely to feel they received it for a reason”. [Samantha Lile]
  30. CoworKite, a co-working space in Cape Town, has opened a branch in Mauritius, promoting the concept of Workation (work-vacation). The programme includes workshops for “digital nomads who want to reduce taxation over their global earnings” and “features a local host, who is both an entrepreneur and a kitesurfer”. [Tom Jackson]
  31. At Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric, workers wear caps to monitor their brainwaves. The data is used to ‘adjust the pace of production and redesign workflows’. [Stephen Chen]
  32. Researchers found that Starbucks customers in northern China are more likely to move chairs out of their way, while customers in southern China will move themselves around the chairs. The researchers attribute this to ancestral food production. In the north, the primary crop is wheat, which is grown by individual farmers. In the south, farmers have to collaborate to grow rice. So, they believe, people in the south are less individualistic. [Mark Abrahams]
  33. Almost 20 years ago, Japanese railway stations started installing blue LED panels on platforms as a suicide prevention measure, believing that blue light improves mood. A ten-year study found an 84% decline in suicide attempts at stations where lights were installed, with no decline at stations without lights. [Allan Richarz]
  34. Using a middle initial makes people think you’re clever. [Wijnand A. P. Van Tilburg & Eric R. Igou]
  35. British water companies regularly use a Victorian device called a ‘listening stick’ to find leaks. The four-foot wooden sticks have an earpiece on the top. They’re used at night, when there is less traffic noise, to listen for flowing water. [Lancashire Post] (Magnetic worked with several water companies in 2018, including Severn Trent, Southern and Northumbrian)
  36. Since GDPR was introduced in May, USA Today have offered a simplified website for European users. It contains the same news, with simpler layout and no advertising or user tracking. It takes 320ms to load, compared with 20+ seconds for the US site. [John Gruber]
  37. The average age of viewers of Vice Media’s ‘Viceland’ TV channel is 42. [Reeves Wiedeman]
  38. Rera is an online poultry farm startup from Harare, Zimbabwe. It’s like Kickstarter for chickens. You order, the farmer grows, you save 40% of retail costs. [Techmoran]
  39. 54 percent of Chinese born after 1995 chose “influencer” as their most desired occupation. [Charlie Gu]
  40. “One prominent television actress paid $40,000 to have her [honeymoon] hotel bathroom’s granite sink lifted 7 inches higher — all so she wouldn’t have to bend over when washing her face.” [Brandon Presser]
  41. Tolaram is a Nigerian company that imports and sells 18¢ packets of noodles sold by tens of thousands of table-top retailers. They launched in 1988, didn’t make a profit until 2000, but now sell 4.5bn packets of noodles a year. [Dr Ola Brown]
  42. Unicode, the international standard for letters, characters and emojis, has 137,439 entries. It includes a group of ‘ghost characters’ (妛挧暃椦槞蟐袮閠駲墸壥彁) which have no known meaning. It’s believed they are errors introduced by folds and wrinkles during a paper-based 1978 Japanese government project to standardise the alphabet, but are now locked into the standard forever. [Paul McCann]
  43. Kojo Yakei is a Japanese trend of night-time factory tours, admiring industrial architecture by boat, train or bus. [Mike Dowman]
  44. In Tunisia, anyone who wants to found a startup can apply for one year’s ‘Startup Leave’ from their company. The government then pay a salary to the startup team, based on their previous income. [Daniel Mpala]
  45. The Communist Youth League in Zhejiang, China, has established a “Marriage and Dating Division” to help young people find love. 13,000 young people have signed up. [Dai Wangyun]
  46. “In 2001, the Thai government established the Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd., in an effort to establish at least 3,000 Thai restaurants worldwide.” [Myles Karp]
  47. In New York City, there are around 1,000 crosswalk buttons. In 2018, only 100 are functional, down from 750 functional buttons in 2004. [Jacopo Prisco]
  48. In America, white people and light-skinned black Americans suffer an ‘obesity income penalty’ whereas medium-and dark-skinned black Americans don’t. [Robert L Reece]
  49. A Chinese podcast called “How to Make Your Voice More Attractive” has 218,000 paying subscribers. Overall, the market in Chinese self-help subscription podcasts was worth $7.3 billion in 2017, compared with just $314 million for all advertising-funded podcasts in the US. [Jennifer Pak]
  50. When he took over the bookshop chain Waterstones, James Daunt gave individual store managers control over which books to stock and how to display them. Over seven years, returns dropped from 20–25% to just 4%. [Robbie Millen / Benedict Evans]
  51. Vanilla pods now cost $500/kg, roughly the same as silver. Madagascan farmers have briefly become vanillionaires, causing chaos in areas where the nearest bank might be a day’s walk away. [Annah Zhu]
  52. A Spanish bakery will install a ‘thermal breadbox’ on the side of your house (for free!) and deliver warm bread every day [Pablo Alarcon]

Previous 52 things lists: 2014201520162017

You might also enjoy: 31 lessons from startups doing it better than you, or How Magnetic uses jugaad innovation Every Day.

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 Condé Nast International, Energy Systems Catapult, National Grid, BEIS and Severn Trent Water.



Tom Whitwell
Magnetic Notes

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