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52 Things I Learned in 2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2022

For the last few years, I’ve been a fan of Tom Whitwell’s annual list of 52 things he learned during the past year — here’s his list for 2021. This year, I kept track of my own list, presented here in no particular order:

  1. “In Fargo, Carl says ‘30 minutes, Jerry, we wrap this thing up’ when there are exactly 30 minutes of the movie remaining.”
  2. There’s a Boeing 727 cargo plane that’s used exclusively for horse transportation nicknamed Air Horse One.
  3. In March 2020, the Covid-19 testing capacity for all of NYC was 120 tests per day.
  4. “The last time ships got stuck in the Suez Canal [in 1967], they were there for eight years and developed a separate society with its own Olympic Games.”
  5. The pronunciation of the last name of the man who lent his name to Mount Everest (over his objections) is different than the pronunciation of the mountain.
  6. While recording the audiobook version of Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White needed 17 takes to read Charlotte’s death scene because he kept crying.
  7. America’s anti-democratic Senate, in one number. “Once Warnock and Ossoff take their seats, the Democratic half of the Senate will represent 41,549,808 more people than the Republican half.”
  8. The first rap video shown on MTV was Rapture by Blondie.
  9. As of 2019, only 54% of Americans accept the theory of evolution.
  10. When CBD is taken orally (as in a pill, food, or beverage), as little as 5% of it enters your bloodstream. “If you’re at the coffee shop and like ‘oh, yeah, give me a CBD,’ you’re just wasting $3.”
  11. The size of FedEx boxes is proprietary. “The size of an official FedEx box, not just its design, is proprietary; it is a volume of space which is a property exclusive to FedEx.”
  12. In golf, finishing four strokes under par on a single hole is called a condor.
  13. A commemorative press plate is given to authors and photographers who have made the front page of the NY Times for the first time.
  14. A button installed at the behest of the previous President summoned a Diet Coke to the Oval Office when pressed.
  15. The number of people born in Antarctica (11) is fewer than the number of people who have walked on the Moon (12).
  16. The market for table saws is $200-400 million but they cause almost $4 billion in damage annually. Power tools companies aren’t liable for the damage, which is borne by individual users, workers comp, and the health system.
  17. Disney animators occasionally “recycle” scenes from older films, keeping the motion and choreography while redrawing the characters.
  18. In the past 45 years, the top 1% of Americans have taken $50 trillion from the bottom 90%.
  19. People age at different speeds. “People varied widely in biological aging: The slowest ager gained only 0.4 ‘biological years’ for each chronological year in age; in contrast, the fastest-aging participant gained nearly 2.5 biological years for every chronological year.”
  20. The Six Flags amusement parks were named after the flags of the six countries that represented Texas throughout its history, including the Confederacy. The last Confederate flags flying outside Six Flags’ locations were removed only in 2017.
  21. Humans have evolved to out-drink other mammals. “Many species have enzymes that break alcohol down and allow the body to excrete it, avoiding death by poisoning. But about 10 million years ago, a genetic mutation left our ancestors with a souped-up enzyme that increased alcohol metabolism 40-fold.”
  22. “It takes about 200 hours of investment in the space of a few months to move a stranger into being a good friend.”
  23. There are only 25 blimps in the whole world.
  24. In 2016, a fourth division Spanish football club renamed itself Flat Earth FC.
  25. “What exactly is meant by the term ‘Holocaust’? It means that the global Jewish population in 2019 (~15 million) is still lower than it was in 1939 (16.6 million). So many Jews were murdered that we still haven’t recovered demographically after 80 years.”
  26. Cannabis delivery isn’t legal in Maine, so this enterprising online shop employs “psychics” to “find a wide selection of your lost weed and drop it off at your home”.
  27. How algorithms radicalize the users of social media platforms. “Facebook’s own research revealed that 64 percent of the time a person joins an extremist Facebook Group, they do so because the platform recommended it.”
  28. Andre Agassi learned to break Boris Becker’s fierce serve by noting the position of Becker’s tongue right before he served.
  29. In emergencies, mammals can breathe through their anus.
  30. There are chess positions that humans players can understand easily that the most powerful chess engines can’t.
  31. As of May 2021, “Republicans and white people have actually become less supportive of Black Lives Matter than they were before the death of George Floyd.”
  32. Build-A-Bear over-purchased yellow fabric to make Minions plushies, so the company released a number of yellow stuffed animals made of the surplus “minion skin”.
  33. Scientists didn’t discover that the cause of the 1918 influenza pandemic was a virus until 1933. “At the time most microbiologists believed that influenza was caused by a bacteria.”
  34. Skinny bike tires are not faster than wider tires. “The increased vibrations of the narrower tires caused energy losses that canceled out the gains from the reduced flex.”
  35. The first RV was made out of a fallen redwood tree and was called “Travel Log”.
  36. “In the last four years, Costa Rica has generated 98.53% of its electricity from renewable sources.”
  37. Disney Imagineers use smaller bricks at the top of buildings to make them seem bigger and taller than they are.
  38. “Dogs tend to poop aligned north-south.”
  39. There are three different types of fun. “Type 2 fun is miserable while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect.”
  40. Babylonians were using Pythagorean calculations for the dimensions of right triangles 1000 years before Pythagoras was born.
  41. Galileo didn’t invent the telescope and wasn’t even the first to use it for astronomical purposes.
  42. By counting excess deaths from Jan 2020 to Sept 2021, the Economist estimates that more than 15 million people have died of Covid-19 worldwide, more than 3 times the official death toll of ~4.6 million.
  43. Michael K. Williams choreographed the dancing in the music video for Crystal Waters’ 100% Pure Love.
  44. Gas stations don’t make much money selling gasoline. The goods inside gas station stores “only account for ~30% of the average gas station’s revenue, yet bring in 70% of the profit”.
  45. Solastalgia “is the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault” (e.g. by climate change).
  46. The Beishan Broadcasting Wall in Kinmen, Taiwan was a massive three-story speaker system built in 1967 to broadcast anti-Communist messages to China.
  47. Before he became a famous actor, Timothée Chalamet had a small YouTube channel where he showed off his custom-painted Xbox 360 controllers.
  48. “China is planning at least 150 new [nuclear] reactors in the next 15 years, more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35.”
  49. Earlier this fall, a bar-tailed godwit set the world record for the longest continual flight by a land bird: about 8100 miles and “flapping its wings for 239 hours without rest”.
  50. “About one in five health-care workers [in the US] has left medicine since the pandemic started.”
  51. The Chevy Suburban has been in production under that same name since 1935, “making it the longest continuously used automobile nameplate in production”.
  52. The ubiquitous Chinese food takeout container was originally invented for carrying oysters.