Things I learned in 2020

A couple years ago, I was inspired by Tom Whitwell of Fluxx to keep a list of interesting things I learned during the year. I set out every year to track them in my commonplace book and while I’m not perfect or consistent at it, I usually end up with a decent list.

my list in my book

This year, I think we all learned a lot. Maybe more than we wanted. Maybe about things we didn’t want to learn. I know a lot more about coronaviruses in general and SARS-CoV2 in particular than I did this time last year (and I had it this time last year). I learned a few different ways to make a droplet-blocking mask. I learned that people, both in aggregate and individuals, are often much better or much worse than I imagined.

So I’ve narrowed my list down, following these rules:

  • It can’t be something I got from Whitwell’s list (although we had a couple overlaps as usual)
  • It can’t be something about covid19
  • If I wrote a whole blog about it (like the WoW pandemic), it’s not here.

I’d love to hear something you learned this year – please share in the comments!

Learnings Learned, 2020

It’s possible to hide messages in whale and dolphin sounds; the US tried it during the Cold War and China is working on it now (Hakai)

Tuvalu gets half its income from leasing rights to the .tv domain (Twitch is a big part of this). (WaPo)

There’s a new model for startup incubators: venture studios combine venture funding with coaching to get to market faster and better. (multiple; Draper Goren Holm is one source)

notes from my commonplace book on Venture Studios

In 1968, NASA’s budget was 4% of the United States’ federal budget (from the excellent podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon)

Dogs prefer to poop along a north-south axis, in line with the Earth’s magnetic field (PBS)

It’s now possible to use all of history as a dataset. (The Guardian)

AI has helped discover 143 new geoglyphs, including a new Nazca Line (The Verge)

There’s more competition to open a Chick-Fil-A than to work at Goldman Sachs, and Chick-Fil-A has a lower acceptance rate than Stanford (The Hustle)

In addition to being a venomous egg-laying mammal with no natural predators, platypuses (platypodes?) also glow under UV light (Science News)

In other marsupial news, a quokka might drop her joey out of her pouch so that it distracts a predator while she escapes (I fact-checked the story with Africa Check)

The new podcast Wild Wild Tech was the source of many amazing new dinner party topics (my husband sort of wishes we could go back to having dinner parties so that he doesn’t have to be my only audience, but honestly after the discussion about animal penises I don’t think anything will faze him). The fact that an entirely fake restaurant got to #1 on TripAdvisor is one example. (Wild Wild Tech)

France’s last public execution was in 1939. (Rare Historical Photos)

Pangolins have prehensile tails (True Facts video series)

Americans went to the library twice as often in 2019 as they went to the cinema. (Multiple: here’s the Smithsonian article) I’m better this gap only increased in 2020.

99 Percent Invisible is another amazing source for learning. For instance, I learned that “Who Let the Dogs Out” has so many parents and creative contributors that it almost seems to have independently occurred to multiple people in multiple countries. (99pi)

Another 99pi episode taught me that there’s a superstition in Hollywood that including a question mark in a movie’s title is bad luck. Thus, Who Framed Roger Rabbit…but looking into that led me to this interesting work on forming hypotheses and testing data (GitHub)

The really annoying Lizard People conspiracy dates back to 1930s Los Angeles, when a guy who was either a grifter or nuts tried to convince the city to let him excavate tunnels full of buried treasure. A dowser joined up with him, and as additional proof they referred to a Hopi story about an ancient advanced race. It’s probable these white guys didn’t understand what “belonging to the Lizard Clan” meant in Hopi culture, or the appreciation for the wisdom of ancestors. (multiple, here’s a good article in LA Mag)

Not really a “learning” per se, but I love the comment Neil Gaiman made in his MasterClass on storytelling: “Stories are one of the most interesting human phenomena because they use memorable lies to convey truths.” (Masterclass)

Synapses in the brain are so small that electrons must cross them using quantum mechanical tunneling (Transcendent Mind)

Clicker training is effective for humans as well as dogs, because it removes any emotional language from the process (Hidden Brain)

Doctors at Walter Reed do a fair amount of penis reconstruction on US soldiers, as IEDs do a lot of damage to legs and genitals. The field’s foundation was in creating genitalia for people who transitioned from a female body to a male one. (Grunt)

Finally, and this is an important one for 2021: Mammals are the only creatures that help members of other species (epimeletic interspecies behavior). (Areo) You are a mammal, so live your uniqueness by helping other people and other animals!

Happy New Year!

Special Bonus Locust Learning Section

The Horn of Africa is facing a horrible locust crisis. I was in Yemen for a bad one about 25 years ago (most of the locusts were in Ethiopia and neighbors, but they’d get blown across the Red Sea to Yemen), and while I never ate one, I also could never figure out if they were the same as grasshoppers or not. has a lot of great information about the insect and the swarm event.

  • Locusts differ from grasshoppers in that they change their behavior to swarm and migrate. They gregarize. (which led me to realize that congregate and gregarious are from the same root)
  • A locust eats its own weight in food every day.
  • A “plague of locusts” swarm can easily affect 20% of the Earth’s land.
  • A swarm the size of Bamako, Niamey, or Paris is realistic.
  • A swarm this size will consume the same amount of food in one day as half the human population of Mali, Niger, or France. (imagine the population of Paris suddenly consuming as much food every day as half of all of France).

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