Saturday, January 9, 2021

52 Things I Learned in 2020

Like all of us, I learned a lot about disease, pandemics, epidemiology, government crisis management as well as a lot of misinformation about all these topics. I am very confident that I have an inflated and undue confidence in what I "know" about these things. I am also very confident that most people are in the same boat as me. 

Let's set all that aside to cover the items I collected over the year as truly new knowledge. They are only in the general order of when I learned them or saved them to my list. My apologies in advance for those things learned that turn out to be untrue or otherwise faulty (bound to happen).


2. I generally knew that abortion rates have been declining over the past decades (e.g., specifically it has declined 24% from 2006-2015). Yet I did not know the distribution of abortions by age of the fetus/baby--65% before 8 weeks, 91 before 13 weeks, and almost 99% before 20 weeks all inclusively I presume. (BTW, I greatly miss SSC).

3. An astronaut almost drowned in space in 2013 (both of these start around the 10-minute mark) and you cannot burp in space, therefore you don't drink carbonated beverages in space. 

4. I learned a lot about speed from this Patrick Collison post including: "Walt Disney's conception of 'The Happiest Place on Earth' was brought to life in 366 days." As a side note, see item 52 below. 

5. Rio averages (or was as of this story) 24 shootouts per day. 

6. The college wealth premium, the benefit to overall lifetime wealth for a person attending college versus foregoing it, might be close to zero.

7. NIMBYism now has a tracking index

8. The tiny island nation of Tuvalu has a recently discovered artificial natural resource. Paging Ronald Coase...

9. Richard Nixon committed treason.

10. The often thrown around (buzzword) term "disruptive" when describing technology, innovation, et al. has a specific meaning and is often misused.

11. I learned many things from Adam Minter on EconTalk including that the thrift is a 17-billion dollar industry, Goodwill's mission is employment training for hard-to-employ people, and Marie Kondo didn't invent decluttering but rather emerged from it.

12. Among other interesting facts, which always are surprising at least to me (and I tend to be aware of economic gravity), I learned that 95% of U.S. commercial ginseng production all comes out of Marathon County, WI.

13. This article was almost the base for my 2020 New Years Resolution fulfillment. It still makes the list here for helping me understand when "sustainable" is not a boo word.

14. Testable is not equivalent to falsifiable and Karl Popper was wrong--this one is deeper than most will realize.

15. "The Central Social Institution in Prague was home to the world’s largest vertical file cabinet. It consists of 3,000 drawers, 10 feet high, reaching from floor to ceiling and covering approximately 4,000 square feet. The drawers are all equipped with roller bearings." -- Be sure to check out the pictures.

16. The real size of countries is astonishing.


18. The first two of Clarke's Three Laws.

19. Trying to say that sex is binary is an oversimplification that probably is devoid of meaning.

20. Civil War veteran and amputee James Hanger designed and built a new, lightweight leg from whittled barrel staves and went on to found Hanger, Inc. which remains a key company in prosthetics.

21. The real price of LEGO pieces have declined by about half in the last 30 years--lots more including nuance on this learned fact at the link.

22. USB drives get heavier as you load more data on to them.

23. Dictionaries do NOT in most cases list pronunciations in order of best or preferred or most common first.


25. 530 Boston Police Department employees made over $200,000 (equal to the salary of the mayor of Boston) in 2019. The highest paid made over $350,000.

26. The fatality risk to police and sheriff who patrol makes it only the 16th most risky occupation, and the magnitudes of the differences from the top 15 is meaningfully large.

27. There are more possible games of chess than there are atoms in the universe.

28. Walter Duranty, an NYT journalist in the 1930s, won a Pulitzer Prize for a work of lies that covered up Stalin's mass murder in Ukraine. A heroic man, Gareth Jones, exposed all of this. Sadly, history is remembered poorly to say the least.

29. Karl Marx neither originated nor popularized the term "capitalism".

30. The "Lord of the Flies" is not just wrong in theory and disproven in analogous fact time and time again, but an actual, real-life version actually happened to disprove it specifically.

31. Fish sticks have an interesting origin story.

32. I always thought the Elo Rating System was named for some acronym or shorthand for a mathematical term. Rather it is simply named for its creator, Arpad Elo. Quaint I must say.

33. & 34. I learned many things (two of which I'll list) listening to Terry Anderson on the podcast The Curious Task. The first (located about the 5-minute mark) is a story of the trade axe, which found its way through the beauty of the natural market well ahead of the explorers. The second (located about the 21-minute mark) is the fact that the disgusting "General" Custer was only a general when he was fighting Indians. Otherwise he was a lieutenant colonel--talk about bad incentives. 

35. A key and underappreciated part of the conceptual framework of externalities is the role of expectations--"Externalities exist only when another party’s actions create unexpected spillover effects."

36. A cheap, effective and painless method of stopping tooth decay has existed for over 100 years and is only now beginning to be used in the USA despite use abroad for some time.

37. A team of scientists may have discovered new organs in the human head.

38. Half of Canada's population lives at a latitude south of Lake Superior.

39. The Anti-Digit Dialing League (ADDL), founded in 1962 to oppose telephone number dialing made of just numbers, is still active and fighting hard against the tide of 10-digit dialing.

40. & 41. Here is another example (EconTalk with Virginia Postrel) where I learned a lot and am listing but two items. First (about the 18-minute mark) Luddites were hypocrites and second (about the 40-minute mark) hemp DID NOT stop being produced because of marijuana’s prohibition--it lost out in the marketplace well before that.

42. In 2019 Japan's population on net shrank at the rate of a person a minute.


44. The widely-used (and misused and overused) concept of Black Swans was invented by Bertrand Russell.

45. & 46. Okay, last two-for-one. The Tim Ferriss podcast interview of Steven Rinella taught me two things of note: First (about the 11-minute mark) is that New Mexico is the state with the second most hypothermia deaths behind Alaska, and second (about the 1-hour, 21-minute mark) is the story of The Children of Llullaillaco. The early discussion of hypothermia wasn't too new to me, but it was nevertheless fascinating.

47. Historically almost all of the return in the stock market, for the S&P500 at least, is captured after hours (between the close and the open).

48. Among other amazing facts about real Christmas trees is that at the large producers they use helicopters sunup to sundown to load up to a thousand trees per hour onto truck trailers.

49. Using cotton-tipped swabs (Q-tips, et al.) to clean ears is probably NOT that bad after all. Note: there is an interesting subtext lesson here about science and incentives--so apt for 2020.

51. Listening to The Great Antidote with Tevi Troy I learned a lot about political rivalries and petty grudges and childish behavior including the degree and nature to which Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson absolutely hated each other. 

52. As referenced above in item 4, perhaps the most amazing speed to build, create, develop was done in 2020 as Moderna's vaccine for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 was developed in 2 days! What I learned was how fast a for-profit company can develop a brand new vaccine, but I must lament how unfortunate it is that government won’t let that technology work for us in a free and timely manner, which costs us immensely in lives and happiness. 

Sorry I ended the list on a sour note, but it is fitting that the first and last items were about science and that the list ended with grimness. 2020 was a great year for science, a sad year for so many, and a bad year for government policy.

Here is to more learning in 2021. Hopefully the tuition won't be so high.



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