Sunday, January 2, 2022

52 Things I Learned in 2021

 As always, these are just in a general order of when during the year I catalogued them. Standard caveats apply--namely, an item learned does not establish its truth value or materiality. 

1. The 16th digit in a credit card number is simply a check digit based on a formula for the first 15 digits (the actual number). A great example of the value of redundancy from this Tim Harford post that is filled with great examples of both redundancy and brevity--like writing an entire email in the subject line alone with such a short message will suffice.

2. & 3. From the same episode of 99% Invisible: The lampposts in NYC's Central Park each have a unique four-digit number on them which can be used for easy navigation. The first two digits are the closest cross street. The second two show which side of the park the lamppost is on (even for east, odd for west) and how deep into the park it is (smaller is closer to the edge). 

The Swiss military had/has elaborate but nearly invisible defenses built throughout its countryside and cities. All of it to help protect it from invasion well into the Cold War, which had the added value of helping to maintain its neutral stance. From the episode, "Switzerland would eventually build out enough bunker space to house the country’s entire population with room to spare — with a buffer of over 10%, no other country’s shelter capacity comes close."

4. Christmas spending is just not that significant despite what you might suspect. In fact it has been getting relatively smaller over the past 80 years. "For every hundred dollars spent across the year in the U.S., just 30 cents are attributable to Christmas retail spending," according to Joel Waldfogel's Scroogenomics as quoted in this Tim Harford post. Also of note, Christmas was illegal in colonial Massachusetts. 

5. The older and more common response phrase is you've got "another think coming" rather than "another thing coming," which is what I've always said. My version is close in American English, and it's been getting closer over my lifetime, FWIW.

6. When Roe v. Wade was first decided it came with the general support of the Southern, Protestant religious right. I found this out reading this Scott Sumner post about what life was like back in 1973 including compared to now. If you think the abortion fact is weird, take a look at the miniskirts of the Middle East including in Afghanistan.

7. "Asian spices such as turmeric and fruits like the banana had already reached the Mediterranean more than 3000 years ago. . . ." Globalization is older than we might think. (HT: Tyler Cowen)

8. When Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO) closed the opening prayer of the 117th Congress by saying "amen and awoman", he was not being woke. He was clumsily making a very old joke as pointed out by John McWhorter on FIRE's So To Speak podcast.

9. Today's amphetamine treatments for ADHD are derived from sketchy 1950s diet pills, but they are not methamphetamines and Ritalin is not an amphetamine at all--so, many kids on ADHD medication are not on "speed", but the Adderall kids technically are. 

10. & 11. From the same episode of Every Little Thing: Most people breathe primarily through one nostril at a time plus the gross facts that every day we swallow the equivalent of about three wine bottles full of mucus filled with outside things that we have breathed in.

Wombats' poop comes out as very dense, hard cubes (i.e., they shit bricks). 

12. In the prime of his career Tiger Woods almost quit to become a Navy SEAL

13. From Joseph Henrich's book WEIRDest People in the World: when humans developed the ability to learn and to use language, their brains physically changed, and it impeded the part of the brain that is used to recognize faces.

14. One container ship today carries more freight than the entire English merchant fleet 400 years ago, with a fraction of the crewhttps://t.co/9ERrmD0sev pic.twitter.com/pwYY14m1PT
15.  Lots from this video such as: There are more hydrogen atoms in a teaspoon of water than there are teaspoons of water in the world's oceans; you can fit all of the planets between the Earth and the Moon with room to spare; Australia is wider than the moon; . . . and many more.

16. The famous part of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech that we all remember, the emphatic conclusion, was not from the speech he had painstakingly prepared to give but rather was an off the cuff adaptation made up in the moment.

17. Society of the Cincinnati is the oldest patriotic, hereditary society in America. It has very selective and interesting rules for membership.

18. The Murray-Hill Riot (a.k.a. Montreal's Night of Terror) was new to me. It shows how tenuous at times the wall between order and chaos and how important good police presence can be.

19. With the emergence of the Brood X cicadas in 2021, I learned about how these 13 & 17-year insect events work.


21. From the two remnants (Jonah Goldberg and Chris Stirewalt) on these two episodes of The Remnant I learned that large turn out elections do not necessarily favor Democrats. This is a conventional wisdom myth.

22. Conservationists sometimes transport Rhinos upside down via helicopter.

23. Queen Elizabeth is sorta technically the world's largest landowner

24. Icebergs always float with about 10% of their mass above the water (tip of the iceberg and all), but their shape determines which part is up and exposed


26. Robert P. McCulloch was the amazing entrepreneur who purchased London bridge, which, as I knew before, was dismantled brick-by-brick and reassembled in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. I did not know that he did it as an effort to bring tourists and publicity to his town nor did I know that he was the inventor of the light, one-person chainsaw. (HT: David Henderson)

27. The awful practice of forcing Jews to wear a yellow star to identify them to unsuspecting others originated not with the Nazis but well before that in the European middle ages.

28. There are a bunch of things I learned from these cool guides. One is the difference between a swamp and a marsh. Another is the signs a dog will bite. Still another is interpretation of tree rings. And more . . .

29. Humans make up just 1/10,000th of Earth's biomass. We are dwarfed slightly by livestock and greatly by fish (neither too surprising to me), vastly by arthropods (somewhat surprising), and colossally by bacteria (greatly surprising). 

30. Two words: Reindeer Cyclones.

31. I was surprised to learn of these contemporary and relatively important people who opposed the decision to use nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945.

32. Over the past eight years, a Chinese billionaire has died on average every 40 days--in case you're wondering, there aren't enough of them to make that a normal, nothing-to-see-here statistic.

33. "Pirates understood the advantages of constitutional democracy — a model they adopted more than fifty years before the United States did so." -- From The Invisible Hook

34. Thomas Jefferson's awkward (to say the least) and wrongful position of being a slaveholder had no easy answer for resolution. It was complicated not just by him having inherited his slaves, but that it was an extreme impracticality for him to ever free them. It was statutorily illegal for him to do so, and more importantly his debts outweighed his assets meaning there was no way for him to free them and discharge the debt. Rather he would have to auction them off to other potentially much worse slaveholders which very likely would mean breaking up the slaves’ families.

35. Among so many things in mixology Peter Suderman's Substack has taught me, perhaps the most impactful was what I didn't know or appreciate about sweet Vermouth.

36. This insane development was begun in 2014 in Turkey and sits abandoned, partially finished. It was to be a luxury housing development for wealthy Gulf tourists based on a Disney inspiration it would seem. Here is more on what was to be the Burj Al Babas.


38. In what is an unintentional tribute to spontaneous order and entrepreneurial problem solving, the Lagos megachurches are becoming relatively well-run cities unto their own. Perhaps an African-Christian version of Burning Man?

39. The reason horse terms were originally used in describing things about cars and naming some car brands is that many people greatly hated cars as a replacement to their beloved horses, and this marketing technique made peace with those who were so strongly opposed to automobiles.

40. "Organic farming is less polluting than conventional farming when measured per unit of land but not when measured per unit of output." From this abstract which includes hints that magnitude matters. 

41. These facts about Ireland during WWII including that the country was neutral. 

42. From The Soho Forum's Bill Kristol vs. Scott Horton Debate on U.S. Interventionism I learned that Somalia is the U.S.'s longest war rather than Afghanistan. 

43. Hard to summarize, but I learned a lot about genetics from this Richard Hanania CSPI podcast interview of Razib Khan

44. Dog's noses are amazing. I knew that. But I didn't know how those slits on the side of the nostrils work or how they can triangulate the source of a smell especially with the help of another dog. 

45. The vastness of the Walt Disney World complex is incredible including how big the parking lots are.

46. Coincidental with the prior item, I learned about this utopian city in India, Auroville, that has a strange Epcot focal point among other things strange and non-utopian. (HT: Scott Alexander)

47. Also from Scott Alexander I learned about all these phenomenal families

48. LBJ's daughter once kept a cat fetus in the White House private residence's freezer for months--from the ELT podcast.

49. The best-selling novel I, Libertine was a total hoax played on the elite, snob-class created by late-night radio host Jean Shepherd. 

50. A Bar-tailed Godwit set a world record by flying more than 8,100 miles nonstop! between Alaska and New South Wales, Australia. 

51. I learned about some recent tragic developments in horse racing. These trends look particularly bad and bad for the sport, which will be a future WWCF topic.

52. Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a short story in 1943 titled The Greatest Gift inspired by a dream he had. Because he couldn't find a publisher, he sent 200 copies of it to friends as Christmas cards. That led to a publisher taking interest and publishing it in book form in 1944. Then two magazine publications printed it one in each of the years 1944 and 1945. Eventually it came to the interest of Hollywood where it was adapted and resold to eventually becoming the 1946 Frank Capra film staring Jimmy Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life.



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