52 Things I Learned in 2023

Insights and factoids that I found interesting and you probably will too.

Every year, I capture my favorite insights and factoids in one end-of-year essay, inspired by Tom Whitwell. I’ve been told it’s the most interesting thing that I write, and I hope you agree.

  1. The Lead-Crime Hypothesis. Turns out the single best way to reduce crime was to remove lead from petrol. In the 50s, millions of kids got exposed to lead, which led to a massive surge in violent crime in the 70s-80s as they came of age. One study found that phasing out lead from gasoline over a 10 year period was “responsible for approximately a 56% (!!) decline in violent crime". (Wikipedia)

  2. The Michelangelo phenomenon. Refers to the semi-conscious feedback loop between two lovers who genuinely care about each other’s opinions. Over time, the lovers evolve to become closer to each partner’s ideal version of the other. This has certainly happened in my marriage, and it’s great! (Wikipedia)

  3. Letter shapes have a surprisingly practical source. Roman letters were often etched into stone, and consequently featured a lot of straight lines. Curly letters (e.g. Telagu, Balanese, etc) come from cultures where people wrote on leaves. Hard angles would tear their “paper”. (@magni.fy)

  4. You can’t tell kids to follow their dreams when their dreams are silly. LEGO surveyed 3,000 kids between ages 8-12 in the US vs. China. In the US, 33% of the kids said their top career dream was to be a YouTuber/Vlogger. In China, the top answer was Astronaut (50%). (@palmerluckey)

  5. A million dollars isn’t cool anymore. 1 in 5 Icelanders are millionaires, and 1 in 10 Americans are. Someone tell Sean Parker he was right. (@ElytraMithra)

  6. Diners were originally a luxury concept. In the 1800s, the masses sat huddled on trains while the rich ate in private dining cars. Some clever entrepreneurs decided to use the same design - open kitchen, single counter, a row of booths - for stationary restaurants to capitalize on the hype. Just like that, a blue-collar American institution was born. (Restaurant Furniture)

  7. India continues to rise rapidly. India has cut poverty by ~80% in the last six years. That’s 100+ million people out of poverty - more than the entire population of Germany! (@Noahpinion)

  8. Exponential numbers remain mind-boggling. Imagine aliens came to earth and demanded every human fought to the death in a massive 1v1 tournament. How many fights would you need to win in order to become world champion? The unintuitive answer: 33. 

  9. All of your mother’s mothers could fit in a movie theatre. Assume your matrilineal line gave birth every 25 years on average. That means your mom, grandmother, great grandmother, and great-great grandmother represent roughly a century. You’re 80 mothers away from 0 AD. And only about 400 mothers away from the beginning of human civilization. This is my new favorite way to think about time. (Wikipedia). 

  10. The danger of Audience Capture. On social media,  followers subtly turn performers into caricatures of themselves by incentivizing them to play an audience-pleasing persona, rather than their true personality. This is happening to us all any time we post online. (Gurwinder)

  11. Doctors in the NHS are wildly underpaid. The guy paid to diagnose brain tumours may be paid less than the guy driving the train he takes to work. Average doctor makes ~£52k, while a train operator makes ~£58k. (@peterrhague)

  12. The best public policy I learned of: Japanese “Hometown Taxes”. In Japan, you can “donate” 40% of your residence taxes to your hometown, regardless of where you live. As a result, there’s a competitive market of towns seducing their former residents for donations. One example: for donating $100, one town will send someone out to your familial gravesite to lay flowers and fruits. (Kalzumeus)

  13. Justice for Pluto! What counts as a planet is entirely arbitrary. Up until the 1920s, the Moon was considered a planet. Up until the 1950s, asteroids were considered planets. The 2006 IAU vote to de-planetize Pluto was a mistake. (Chronicles of Harry)

  14. Climate change activism is working (slowly). UK emissions are the lowest since 1888. Living in London myself, it’s incredible to see how green-focused the society is. (Euractiv)

  15. Art is about the narrative, not the object. The Mona Lisa became the most famous artwork in the world only after it was stolen in 1911. The story went viral before the term even existed, and now the painting is considered the most important work of the modern era. (@TrungTPhan)

  16. Fact is stranger than fiction. During the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee was in charge of finding Soviet spies in the US government. The only problem: the congressman who founded the committee was himself a paid Soviet spy. (Wikipedia)

  17. Culinary “heritage” is often a modern invention. Baguettes were invented as recently as the 20th century, and only became a piece of the national French identity after World War 2. Much of “Italian Cuisine” is similarly new or not actually Italian. Carbonara is an American recipe. Pizza restaurants didn’t start until 1911 in New York City. Panettone and Tiramisu are each less than 75 years old. (FT)

  18. The podcast boom is (finally) over. New podcast creation fell 80% from 2020 to 2022.  (The Verge)

  19. Some people are just built different.  Founder and CEO of Stripe, Patrick Collison, finished high school in 20 days and entered MIT on an SAT score he got when he was 13. (Wired UK

  20. Objective truth” is often socially defined. There is no single agreed-upon number of continents. Different countries teach different numbers of continents, ranging from as few as 5 to as many as 7. (@JayForeman)

  21. What goes around comes around: Chinese LLMs are struggling due to censorship. Despite comparable internet users, English content dominates Chinese by 60% vs 1.4% of top 10 million global websites. This is one of the reasons that Chinese LLMs - gated by the Great Firewall - cannot be as effective and useful as Western LLMs. They just don’t have enough quality data.  (China Talk)

  22. “Russians like to drink” isn’t just a stereotype. During the Tsarist times, vodka sales made up nearly half of the Russian government’s tax revenues! During the Soviet time, vodka bottles weren’t resealable, but this only led to people drinking entire bottles in one sitting. (The Atlantic)

  23. Napoleon was the greatest general of all time, bar none. Alexander the Great fought only 9 battles. Julius Caesar, only 17. Napoleon, by contrast, fought in 43. No major general has fought in even half as many battles as Napolean, except for Robert E Lee.  (Matt Lakeman)

  24. Alcohol is awful for society, part 28. Alcohol is involved in 40% of homicides. (Drug Policy Facts)

  25. When you base models on humans, you get human behaviour. LLMs like ChatGPT are trained on the internet, and as a result have the same biases as humans. For one thing, they often repeat common misconceptions. They can be made more effective by just telling them “be better”. And since they are trained to be agreeable, they change their political opinions based on the perceived opinions of the person they are talking to. (Astral Codex Ten)

  26. People really seem to like buying nuts in bulk. Costco is responsible for 50% of all cashew sales in the world. (@crampell).

  27. We live in the funniest timeline. Pornhub, the biggest pornography site in the world, was acquired by a private equity firm called Ethical Capital Partners. (@_ali_taylor)

  28. We’re all f*cked. Deep learning models can use microphone recordings to accurately identify keystrokes. That means a hacker just needs to hear you type in order to get your password. (@ykhong)

  29. Counter to every movie ever, birth doesn’t begin with water breaking. Only about ~9% of pregnant women have their water break before labor. For the vast majority, your water breaks after contractions have begun. (Medical News Today)

  30. Your architecture is your destiny. Every time I’m in NYC, I wonder why there is trash literally everywhere. Turns out it’s due to a lack of alleys when brownstones were built originally. There’s nowhere else to put it (@Archdigest).

  31. Hairier people are superior (at least with regards to bugs). Having lots of body hair makes it harder for biting insects such as mosquitos to get a good chomp of you. (National Library of Medicine)

  32. Homework is becoming less effective every day.  In 2008, homework completion led to an improvement in grades for 86% of the completers. But by 2017, only 45% of students got any benefit from completing the homework. Why? Because most of them just copied it online, and all the benefit is in actually doing the homework. With LLMs now, the concept of homework itself will not be a useful educational tool for much longer. (@emollick)

  33. Bed rest is a (slightly misogynistic) myth. According to Emily Oster, bed rest is not a good recommendation for pregnant women. There is no evidence that it works, and there is some evidence that it may even be harmful. If your doctor suggests bed rest, you should be suspicious and consider seeking a second opinion. (Lucie’s List)

  34. The ESG Era has ended. ESG funds are investment portfolios for which environmental, social and governance factors are considered in the investment process. Volumes are down 75% as a fad passes away. (@Noahpinion)

  35. Netflix is a juggernaut. They used to account for 1.3% of all mail in the US in 2009. Now they account for 15% of all internet traffic, globally. 

  36. Cremations. So hot right now. In 2000, only 26% of all deaths were cremated, but by 2020 the majority of people are opting for crèmentations (57%) due to cost and personalizations.The National Funeral Directors Association projects that we’ll hit 64% of deaths being cremation by 2025. Time to sell your graveyard stock. (Washington Post & Time)

  37. End of an Era, officially. Newspapers used to account for nearly 80% of all advertising revenue, but that number has decreased by 97%. (@george__mack

  38. What it’s like to fall off as a rapper. Fetty Wap, the rapper behind the hit song ‘Trap Queen,’ was sentenced to 6 years in jail for dealing drugs. He said he knew he was falling off when he woke up and hadn’t made $100k the day before. He would spend $45,000 on a shopping trip for jeans in a single day. (@DJAkademiksTV2)

  39. Snitches don’t get stitches. They get paid. The US government paid a single whistleblower $279 million this year. If you know some things about some shady shit, hit up the SEC. Snitching pays. (Sec Gov

  40. Anti corruption measures are detectable in bureaucrat waistlines. Xi Xinping’s anti-corruption efforts have reduced bureaucrat obesity by 12%. (Guardian)

  41. Just give homeless people homes. Conventional homelessness reduction policies focus on job training, mental health, etc. Finland took the opposite approach: give people homes, then worry about everything else. Now, Finland is the only country in the EU where homelessness is declining rapidly. (The Mandarin)

  42. Sometimes, authoritarianism works. El Salvador's murder rate has fallen from 103 (highest in world) to 7.8 (lower than US) under the current president, who is using mass incarceration and a number of other blatantly anti-liberal policies. He has a 90% approval rating. (The Wall Street Journal)

  43. Leadership isn’t about efficiency. Effective leaders often appear inefficient when managing people, unlike with things. People require time investments; there is no “efficient” way to do it otherwise. You just have to put in the time and the effort. (The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People)

  44. America in decline, part 240. US life expectancy is declining across all income levels compared to England. (@jburnmurdoch

  45. Asian IP is often worth more than all of the “familiar” Western IP we know. Hello Kitty has made more money than James Bond, Marvel, and Spiderman movies combined. Pokemon did $11.6 billion in profits last year. Asian IP is underrated in the West. (@TrungTPhan

  46. We may be at the top of the pet market. The US pet market alone was $136.8 billion last year. People have a lot of money to spend on companionship, but the definition of what counts as a companion is rapidly changing. I expect to see more people with AI friends and fewer with real-life pets going forward. (@pet3rpan_

  47. James Dolan is the pettiest man alive. Dolan owns the NY Knicks basketball team, as well as their stadium, Madison Square Garden. He uses facial recognition to ban lawyers from firms who are suing him from attending Knicks games. I aspire to be this petty. (Fortune)

  48. Lebron James is clearly the best basketball player of all time (sorry Michael). Lebron James has played in more NBA playoff games than half of all teams have in their entire history. (@BronMuse)

  49. Boomers are holding onto more wealth than ever. Only 1% of The Forbes400 is under 40, the lowest percentage in at least two decades. I once heard this described as “dream hoarding” and I can’t stop thinking about it. (Forbes)

  50. Finance bros: name your children after your favorite CEOs. A large study found analysts made better earnings forecasts for companies where the CEO had the same name as them. The reason: favoritism. CEOs apparently selectively share extra information with name-matched analysts, particularly when the shared name is uncommon. (SSRN)

  51. The Pygmalion Effect. The higher your expectations of someone - a child, a partner, an employee -  the more likely they are to perform well. Particularly appropriate for new parents, such as myself. The Golem Effect is the inverse, where low expectations reduce performance.  (Wikipedia

  52. Someone you know is making money selling nudes online. An estimated 500k women in the US between 18-24 are content creators on Onlyfans. There are only 15.5m women in that demographic, which means that roughly 3 out of every 100 women between 18-24 are signed up to create content on Onlyfans. (@Endernaxx)

Enjoyed this? Check out the 2022 and 2020 lists for more of this kind of thing.