A Finnish firewood processing machine, just round the corner from where I was taught how to use a chainsaw safely in October.

52 things I learned in 2023

Tom Whitwell
Magnetic Notes
Published in
7 min readDec 1, 2023


This year I worked on fascinating projects in food, media, storytelling, AI and health at Magnetic, and learned many learnings.

  1. In a recent experiment, “a group of domesticated birds were taught to call one another on tablets and smartphones.” They enjoyed it and made new friendships. [Schuyler Velasco]
  2. A group of Carmelite monks in Wyoming are building themselves a gothic monastery using 3D design software and stone-carving robots: [Anool Mahidharia]
  3. There’s been a colony of 15,000 wild scorpions living in the walls of Sheerness Dockyard, Kent, for over 200 years. [John Nurden]
  4. A ‘payola’ guitar is an electric guitar with four pickups and four output sockets, so that 1950s session players could get paid four times while playing one solo. [Allen St John]
  5. Job satisfaction in the US is at a 35-year-high. In 2010, less than 45% of people said they were satisfied with their jobs. In 2022, over 62% said they were, and you need to go back to the 80s to find satisfaction as high as today. Big gains come from work/life balance and the performance review process. [Emily Peck]
  6. The US Defence Department earns $100m/year operating slot machines used by soldiers on their bases. [Gabby Means]
  7. 1 in 5 people currently have a disability. 100% of people will have some form of disability in their lifetime. [Jim Nielsen]
  8. A specialness spiral is when you wait for the perfect time to use something, then end up never using it at all. “An item that started out very ordinary, through repeated lack of use eventually becomes … seen more as a treasure” [Jonah Berger & Jacqueline Rifkin]
  9. Psychedelic cryptography is a way of concealing messages (normally in videos) so that only people who’ve taken LSD can receive the messages. [Andrés Gómez-Emilsson]
  10. When Italy banned Chat-GPT, productivity of coders in the country fell by 50% before recovering. [David Kreitmeir & Co]
  11. Canadian researchers gave homeless people $7,500 in a bank account that they could spend on anything they wanted. They spent it on food, clothes, and rent. Many moved into stable housing and saved enough to give them some stability. [Sigal Samuel]
  12. “Bertie Sheldrake was a South London pickle manufacturer who converted to Islam and became king of a far-flung Islamic republic before returning to London and settling back into obscurity.” [Sharon O’Connor]
  13. Humans are now roughly as tall as we were 12,000 years ago. 4,000 years ago, the average man was 5’4”. [Michael Hermanussen]
  14. Some corrupt Mexican police are now using card terminals to make collecting bribes at traffic stops more convenient. [Daniela Dib]
  15. The number of supercentenarians in an area tends to fall dramatically about 100 years after accurate birth records are introduced. [Saul Justin Newman via Alex Tabarrok]
  16. In the 19th Century, champagne was sweetened depending on local tastes. Russians had 300 grams of sugar added, the British just 50 grams. In 1842 Perrier-Jouët introduced unsweetened champagne. It failed and people called it ‘Brut’, but that’s how all champagne tastes today. [Chris Mercer & Karen MacNeil]
  17. Fashion models in China are cutting prices to compete with AI: “If designers using AI charge 800 yuan, I’ll do 600. If they charge 600, I’ll get down to 500. There’s no other way out. I’ll fight till the end.” [Andrew Deck]
  18. A “nonattitude” is a weakly held belief, entirely invented in response to a question in an opinion poll. [Philip Converse]
  19. Three-quarters of the murders in Chicago are caused by arguments, altercations that have gone too far. [Jens Ludwig]
  20. A tank museum in Dorset made £2m last year from online activities, including YouTube and TikTok channels. A £2,000/year subscription buys you ‘Field Marshall’ status, which includes Executive Producer credit on every video. [Alex Marshall]
  21. The UK government recently changed the law to ban company names containing computer code, after Michael Tandy of Hatfield registered a company called “; DROP TABLE “COMPANIES”; — LTD,” which could theoretically erase the companies house database. [Alison Thewliss MP]
  22. Hookworm infestation might be a cure for hay fever. [Helen Thompson]
  23. In August, two Chinese influencers with elderly audiences, Xiucai and Yixiaoqingcheng, held a ‘livestream battle’ where they competed for tips. The three-hour show had 20m viewers. One 60 year-old female fan claims to have given Xuicai her entire pension worth 520,000 yuan (£58,000). Unfortunately, his account has now been closed after a tax investigation. [Yang Caini]
  24. Researchers have created a detailed live 3D model of all the people in a room by analysing Wifi signals using consumer-grade antennas. [Jiaqi Geng & co]
  25. The top 10% of US motorists use more petrol than the bottom 60%. [Robert N. Charette]
  26. New research shows that placebos are effective in reducing feelings of guilt, but they work less well on shame. [Shayla Love, Dilan Sezer]
  27. People in historically rice-farming areas are less happy and compare themselves socially more than people in wheat-farming areas. [Thomas Talhelm]
  28. French Champagne is too cheap. [Daniel Langer]
  29. Guardian Centers is a privately owned disaster preparedness training campus, which includes 1.7 km of four lane highway and two city blocks of “dynamic collapsed structures.” [Anna Pendergrast & Kelly Pendergrast]
  30. Fake belly buttons are temporary tattoo-style stickers. Placed a few inches above your navel, they give the illusion of longer legs. One Chinese reviewer described them as “the most successful invention of 2023.” [Yating Yang]
  31. Washboard sales went up 57% during the pandemic, inspired by “fears of societal collapse and limited laundry service”, although 40% are sold as percussion instruments. [Kris Maher]
  32. Only 28 books sold more than 500,000 copies in the US in 2022. Eight of them were by romance novelist Colleen Hoover. [Jason Colvato]
  33. The average US fridge uses 3–5 times more electricity than an entire human being consumes in Nigeria. [Daisy Dunne & Simon Evans]
  34. 31% of all children attending University of Chicago Burn Center for scalding injuries were hurt by instant noodles. [Timothy J. Shen & co]
  35. Scotland’s forest cover is nearly back to where it was 1,000 years ago, while England has risen to levels last seen in 1350. [Hannah Ritchie]
  36. For millennia, the population of North and Central Switzerland suffered mysterious health problems: large neck swellings and congenital abnormalities. In 1914, GP and poet Heinrich Hunziker realised the problem was iodine deficiency. A vast ice sheet had scraped away the topsoil, surface rock and natural iodine 25,000 years earlier. Tiny quantities of iodine were added to table salt and the mysterious symptoms went away. [Jonah Goodman]
  37. A Locate Rodeo is where people who work for utilities like electricity, water and gas come together to competitively locate underground hazards. Competitors have 12 minutes to locate hard-to-find infrastructure. [James Coleman]
  38. Two street food stalls, in Bangkok and Singapore, have Michelin stars. The third, a Singaporean noodle stall, lost its star in 2021 after expanding into a chain. [Marielle Descalsota]
  39. For both stone-age people and modern enthusiasts, making flint tools is surprisingly dangerous. [Nicholas Gala]
  40. 40% of people shown a photoshopped image of themselves riding in a viking ship as a child claimed to remember the (fictional) incident. This replicates a similar experiment from 2002 involving a fictional balloon ride. [Miriam S. Johnson & co]
  41. In 2004, it took one year to install 1 gigaWatt of solar power. In 2023, installed 1 gigaWatt of solar power every day. [Kees van der Leun]
  42. Ukrainian defenders print out giant 1:1 life-size aerial photographs of damaged airfields. Once the site is repaired, they hang the images over the sites so they look damaged and not worth attacking again. [Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi & co]
  43. 2,529 individuals were offered a free online subscription to their local newspaper worth $45. Only 44 subscribed. [Daniel J. Hopkins]
  44. Windows are the enemy of the art dealer. [Patrick Radden Keefe]
  45. In Oklo, Gabon, a natural uranium deposit underground achieved criticality, generating heat as a natural nuclear reactor. Fortunately, this happened 1.5 billion years ago. [Laura Gill]
  46. Scientists in Singapore have developed a tiny flexible battery, powered by the salt in human tears, designed for smart contact lenses. [Yun Jeonghun]
  47. Since 1986, Nepal’s timezone has been 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT. [Sam Enright]
  48. Ligniloc is a compressed wooden nail that can be fired from a nailgun [Claire Aldridge via Alex Whitwell]
  49. In 1909, George Cove was New York’s biggest solar power and battery innovator. Then he was kidnapped, his business mysteriously failed and he was almost erased from history. [Foeke Postma]
  50. In 1992 there was a bank robbery every 45 minutes in Los Angeles. [Peter Houlahan]
  51. Steering a bike is much, much more complicated than it seems. [Lori Dorn]
  52. Infant mortality in Rajasthan fell by 30% between 2016 and 2021 — so over 100,000 more babies in the state celebrate their first birthday each year. Causes included breastfeeding promotion and a Rs2000 (£20) cash transfer for women who attend four antenatal clinics. [Angus Hervey and Abusaleh Shariff]

Previous 52 things lists: 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022

Tom Whitwell is a Managing Consultant at Magnetic (formally Fluxx ), a company that helps clients solve big problems and build better products. We work with Pepsico, John Lewis, Zopa, Google, Mars, Innovate UK, Bupa, Channel 4 and others.

Tom also designs open source music electronics as Music Thing Modular and is objectively interesting.

Do get in touch if you want to know more: tom.whitwell@wearemagnetic.com



Tom Whitwell
Magnetic Notes

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