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52 things I learned in 2019

Tom Whitwell
Magnetic Notes
Published in
8 min readDec 2, 2019


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

[NPR’s Planet Money covered this year’s list in Episode 959: Things We Learned in 2019]

  1. Each year humanity produces 1,000 times more transistors than grains of rice and wheat combined. [Mark P Mills]
  2. The maths of queuing are absolutely brutal and counter-intuitive. [John D Cook]
  3. Emojis are starting to appear in evidence in court cases, and lawyers are worried: “When emoji symbols are strung together, we don’t have a reliable way of interpreting their meaning.” (In 2017, an Israeli judge had to decide if one emoji-filled message constituted a verbal contract) [Eric Goldman]
  4. Harbinger customers are customers who buy products that tend to fail. They group together, forming harbinger zip codes. If households in those zip codes buy a product, it is likely to fail. If they back a political candidate, they are likely to lose the election. [Simester, Tucker & Yang]
  5. Baijiu is the world’s most popular spirit, with 10bn litres sold each year, almost entirely in China. The second most popular spirit in the world is vodka, with just 5bn litres sold. [Feyi Fawehinmi]
  6. A Python script, an Instagram account and quite a bit of free time can get you free meals in New York City. [Chris Buetti]
  7. At least three private companies have fallen victim to ‘deep fake’ audio fraud. In each case, a computerised voice clone of the company CEO “called a senior financial officer to request an urgent money transfer.” [Kaveh Waddell, Jennifer A. Kingson]
  8. Drunk shopping could be a $45bn /year industry, and only 6% of people regret their drunk purchases. [Zachary Crockett]
  9. Placebos are so effective that placebo placebos work: A pain cream with no active ingredients worked even when not used by the patient. Just owning the cream was enough to reduce pain. [Victoria Wai-lanYeung]
  10. Since the 1960s, British motorways have been deliberately designed by computer as series of long curves, rather than straight lines. This is done for both safety (less hypnotic) and aesthetic (“sculpture on an exciting, grand scale”) reasons. [Joe Moran]
  11. Between 1880 and 1916, Ireland had its own timezone, which was 25m 21s behind Greenwich Mean Time. After the Easter Rising, the House of Commons in London introduced GMT in Ireland and abolished Dublin Mean Time [Elena Goukassian]
  12. Drug names are changing: X and Z names (Prozac, Seroxat) are giving way to names ending in O or A (Natesto, Qsymia) which are more appealing to speakers of Romance languages in Europe and South America. [Pascaline Faure]
  13. The UK male suicide rate is the lowest since accurate records began in 1981. [Office for National Statistics]
  14. The goal of walking 10,000 steps per day may have originated when a Japanese pedometer manufacturer noticed that the 万 symbol (which means 10,000) looks a little like someone walking. The actual health merits of that number ‘have never been validated by research.’ [Amanda Mull]
  15. People hate asking sensitive questions. However, it turns out that people don’t hate being asked sensitive questions. So talking around difficult questions in research interviews is a waste of time and money. [Hart, VanEpps, Schweitzer]
  16. The Korean Police force includes five labradors who are clones of ‘Quinn’, a bomb-sniffing dog who found fame after finding a missing girl’s body in a 2007 kidnapping. [Kim Tong-hyung]
  17. As mobile phones became mainstream in the US in the early 1990s, the murder rate fell sharply. Street drug dealing became less popular, so gang-related turf wars were less common. (Other factors were also involved, obviously.) [Alexis C. Madrigal]
  18. Mechanical devices to cheat your phone pedometer (for health insurance fraud or vanity) are now all over AliExpress. [Matthew Brennan]
  19. In 2017 Google and Facebook lost $100 million between them to one scammer who sent them fake invoices. [Jeff John Roberts] [found by TomBot*]
  20. Teenagers with acne get higher marks, are more likely to complete college and, if female, eventually get paid more than people without teenage acne. [Hugo M. Mialon & Erik T. Nesson]
  21. 72% of classical musicians have taken beta blockers for performance anxiety. [Composed]
  22. Black women in the United States die in childbirth at roughly the same rate as women in Mongolia. [Annie Lowrey]
  23. Sometime in the 1990s, it seems the US forgot how to make a critical component of some nuclear warheads. [Nick Baumann]
  24. “Mushrooms and truffles are fungi, more closely related to humans than they are to plants.” [Lynne Peskoe-Yang]
  25. In the US Northwest, rain can damage the fruit on cherry trees. So helicopter pilots are paid to fly over the orchards, using their downdraft to dry the fruit as it ripens. For the pilots, it’s a risky but potentially profitable job. [Maria Langer]
  26. Gravitricity is a Scottish startup planning to store energy by lifting huge weights up a disused mine shaft when electricity is cheap, dropping them down to generate power when it is expensive. Using a 12,000 tonne weight (roughly the weight of the Eiffel tower), it should be half as expensive as equivalent lithium ion battery. [Jillian Ambrose]
  27. Spotify pays by the song. Two three minute songs are twice as profitable as one six minute song. So songs are getting shorter. [Dan Kopf]
  28. Fashion++ is a Facebook-funded computer vision project that looks at a photo of your outfit and suggests ‘minimal edits for outfit improvement’ like tucking in a shirt or removing an accessory. [Wei-Lin Hsiao & co] (In 2019, Magnetic helped launch Vogue Business.)
  29. Three million students at US schools don’t have the internet at home. [Michael Melia & co]
  30. No babies born in Britain in 2016 were named Nigel. [Jonathan Ore] (Correction: Robert Colvile, who broke the original story, points out that there could have been one or two Nigels in 2016 — the ONS only reports names with three or more examples)
  31. Using machine learning, researchers can now predict how likely an individual is to be involve in a car accident by looking at the image of their home address on Google Street View. [Kinga Kita-Wojciechowska]
  32. In 2018, the Nigerian government spent more on subsidies for petrol than on health, education, or defence. [Andrew S Nevin]
  33. According to WaterAid research, women spend 97 billion hours a year looking for a safe place to go to the loo. That equals 46 million working years, which is the same workforce as Germany, the fourth largest economy in the world. [Caroline Criado Perez via Tanya Gold]
  34. 28% of people like the smell of (their own) urine after eating asparagus.[Rolf Degen]
  35. AliBaba is investing $15m to research Chinese dialects, hoping to improve the performance of their voice recognition systems. [Emma Lee]
  36. At least half of the effort of most AI projects goes on data labelling, and that’s often done in rural Indian villages. [Anand Murali]
  37. Worldwide, growth in the fragrance industry is lagging behind cosmetics and skincare products. Why? ‘You can’t smell a selfie’. [Andrea Felsted and Sarah Halzack]
  38. CD sales still make up 78% of music revenue in Japan (compared with less than 30% in the UK). Japanese pop fans have been encouraged to buy multiple copies of their favourite releases to win rewards (buy 2,000 copies, win a night at a hot spring with your favourite star). One 32 year-old fan was charged with illegally dumping 585 copies of a CD on the side of a mountain. [Mark Mulligan] [found by TomBot*]
  39. Two disgruntled game developers wrote a script to generate and release identical but differently-named slot machine apps (sample names: Deer Antler Spray Slots, 3D Ravioli Slots). Eventually, the slot machine apps earned them $50,000. [Alex Schwartz & Ziba Scott]
  40. 80% of prisoners released late 2018 in a presidential pardon have opted to return to Kinshasa’s infamous Makala jail due to lack of means to live. [Olivier Kalume]
  41. Disco, a Japanese high tech manufacturing company, has introduced an internal billing and payment system, where every cost is charged back to workers. Renting a conference room costs $100. “People really cut back on useless meetings,” says one staffer. [Yuji Nakamura & Yuki Furukawa]
  42. A man who bought the personalised number plate NULL has received over $12,000 of parking fines, because the system records ‘NULL’ when no numberplate has been recorded. [Jack Morse]
  43. The islands of Orkney generate 120% of their energy needs using wind and solar. However, 57% of homes in Orkney are in fuel poverty, where a household spends more than 10% of income on fuel. [Chris Silver] (This year I worked briefly with Community Energy Scotland on a project with Energy Systems Catapult)
  44. Some blind people can understand speech that is almost three times faster than the fastest speech sighted people can understand. They can use speech synthesisers set at at 800 words per minute (conversational speech is 120–150 wpm). Research suggests that a section of the brain that normally responds to light is re-mapped in blind people to process sound. [Austin Hicks & R Douglas Fields]
  45. SpottedRisk is a disgrace insurance company built on data: “Firstborns are at slightly higher risk of disgrace, as are those… who’ve suffered recent breakups — until the passage of time sends the bereft partner back down the ‘risk-decay curve.’” [Boris Kachka]
  46. SDAM (Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory) is a rare syndrome where otherwise healthy, high-functioning people are unable to remember events from their own life. There is also an exhausting syndrome called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, where people can remember precise details about every single day of their life. [Palumbo & Alain]
  47. “Polling by phone has become very expensive, as the number of Americans willing to respond to unexpected or unknown callers has dropped. In the mid-to-late-20th century response rates were as high as 70%… [falling to] a mere 6% of the people it tried to survey in 2018.” [The Economist]
  48. In 2012, only one sports team (Manchester United) was worth more than $2bn. Today, there are 52 sports teams worth more than $2bn. [Kurt Badenhausen]
  49. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were invented by a cleaner at a Frito-Lay factory. He’s now VP of multicultural sales for PepsiCo America. [Zachary Crockett]
  50. Six reluctant Chinese hitmen who hired each other to carry out a murder went to jail when their outsourcing scheme collapsed. [Eric Cheung]
  51. Fast fashion is hitting the wiping rags businesses, because some clothing is just too badly made to be sold as rags. [Adam Minter] (In January, Magnetic worked with Fibretrace to develop new ways to make the circular economy work in fashion.)
  52. Asking ‘What questions do you have for me?’ can be dramatically more effective than ‘Any questions?’ at the end of a talk. (Many more good tips in this thread. [Jacqueline Antonovich]

Previous 52 things lists: 2014 2015201620172018

Tom Whitwell is Managing Consultant at Magnetic (formally Fluxx and magneticNorth), a company that uses experiments to understand customers, helping clients to build better products. We work with organisations such as The Economist, Bain & Co, Condé Nast International, National Grid, BEIS and Severn Trent Water.

*TomBot is a machine learning tool for finding interesting stories, trained by Signal.FISH on previous 52 Things lists.



Tom Whitwell
Magnetic Notes

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