52 things I learned in 2018

By Tom Whitwell

Dad’s paint samples in Bristol, August 2018

This year I edited another book, worked on fascinating projects at Fluxx, 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] (Fluxx 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] (Fluxx 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: 2014 — 2015 — 2016 — 2017

You might also enjoy: Lessons in Human-Centred Design from DIYSOS, or How Fluxx uses jugaad innovation Every Day.

Tom Whitwell is Senior Consultant at Fluxx, 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.


Page 2

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

Between projects at Fluxx, 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] (Fluxx 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 Fluxx 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 Fluxx 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] (Fluxx 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: Fluxx 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 Fluxx, 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.