52 things I learnt in 2020

Photo by Skye Studios on Unsplash

Since 2014, Tom Whitwell has been producing a list of 52 things they learnt each year, e.g., 52 things they learnt in 2020. I enjoy reading these, and thought that maybe I should have a go at writing my own. So lets jump right in!

  1. With the right tools and systems, our thinking could be dramatically improved.
  2. The west is psychologically weird compared to all other societies. Anthropologist Joseph Henrich ties together evidence from various fields to explain why, and how this results in the west becoming the dominant power in the past few hundred years.
  3. David Graeber argues against the common narrative that before money there was only bartering.
  4. You can predict the formation of China, of India, and of many small fractured states in Europe using a mathematical model.
  5. To maximise the speed you learn, increase the speed you listen/read until your comprehension drops from 100% to 80%.
  6. Rwanda has a benevolent dictatorship.
  7. Every organisation, from countries to friendship groups, need both conservatives and progressives to thrive.
  8. Adding roads to a city can increase travel times!
  9. Many ‘dichotomies’ can be matched up:
    old vs young
    conservative vs progressive
    centralised vs non-centralised
    exploit vs explore
    time-series risk vs ensemble risk
    overfitting vs underfitting
  10. Maybe ancient people had no theory of mind: they believed their inner thoughts were actually external thoughts, perhaps from a dead person, or from a God etc.
  11. The most important quality of an effective political organiser is to have a deep respect for everybody, regardless of their opinions.
  12. NASA is going back to the moon by 2024! How was this not bigger news when it was announced?!
  13. Spaced repetition is a super power.
  14. Perhaps you should reverse any advice you read.
  15. Writing a note to my next-day-self is my stepping stone into daily journaling.
  16. Coming up with good ideas is a super-power, so practice this skill by creating ten ideas everyday.
  17. Emotional self-management and collaborative communication are super-powers.
  18. Giving Green has evidence-based recommendations for donations to combat climate change.
  19. The current higher education system is basically terrible, and we should dare to dream of better.
  20. Taking upskirt photos used to be legal in England and Wales, but not anymore thanks to Gina Martin.
  21. You can find out about important social change issues in unexpected places, e.g. Gina Martin discussed her story on the BudPod podcast.
  22. People used to write guides on how to buy slaves. From Frankopan’s The Silk Roads:
    “Rome also provides a useful comparison for the way that slaves were bought and sold. In the Roman world, there was keen competition between the wealthy for prize captives — valued for their unusual looks and as talking points. Personal preference also played a part, with one well-appointed aristocrat insisting on having matching slaves, all equally attractive and all of the same age. Similar ideas prevailed with rich Muslims, as later guidebooks to help with the slave-buying process make clear. “Of all the black slaves,” wrote one eleventh-century author, “the Nubian women are the most agreeable, tender and polite. Their bodies are slim with a smooth skin, steady and well proportioned.. .they respect their master as if they were created to serve.” Women of the Beja people, whose home was in what is today Sudan, Eritrea and Egypt, “have a golden complexion, beautiful faces, delicate bodies and smooth skins; they make pleasant bed-fellows if they are taken out of their country while they are still young.”
    Other guidebooks offered equally helpful pointers. “When you set out to buy slaves, be cautious,” wrote the author of another eleventh-century Persian text best known as the Qabus-nama. “The buying of men is a difficult art because many a slave appears to be good” but turns out to be quite the opposite. “Most people imagine that buying slaves is like any other form of trading,” the author added; in fact, the skill of buying slaves “is a branch of philosophy.” Beware of yellowness of complexion — a sure sign of haemorrhoids; be careful too of men blessed with good looks, floppy hair and eyes — “a man having such qualities is either over-fond of women or prone to act as a go-between.” Make sure to have a possible purchase lie down; then you should “press on both sides and watch closely” for any signs of inflammation or pain; and double-check “hidden defects,” such as bad breath, deafness, stutter or hardness at the base of the teeth. Follow all these instructions (and plenty more besides), the author declared, and you will not be disappointed.”
  23. Many social groups, from big ones like religious groups to small ones like a local club, are better understood historically than logically. Being part of a social group is a fundamental psychological need for humans. And lots of other insights to be found within this slatestarcodex blogpost.
  24. To create inter-group conflict, all you need to do is create the groups.
  25. To better understand racism, you should watch this documentary on Jane Elliot’s blue-eye vs brown-eye experiment.
  26. There were prehistoric female hunters.
  27. I always thought the term ‘intersectional feminism’ was redundant — isn’t that just normal feminism? Turns out some feminists, e.g. Posie Parker, don’t consider trans women to be women.
  28. Rose of Dawn, a transwoman, dislikes the modern trans movement, e.g. the idea that all gender identities are equally valid.
  29. Imagine a world where gender was a non-issue.
  30. The internet is drastically reducing our ability to focus and do deep-reading.
  31. We should quit social media, at least for a few months. (Note this is not a link to the Netflix documentary, but a talk by Jaron Lanier.)
  32. Not so fun-fact: Higher education isn’t about education.
    Malcolm: Look, these guys are in the luxury handbag business. They’re not in the education business. They are interested in sustaining a certain brand equity. And they see expanding the size of their schools as diluting their brand equity in exactly the same manner as Louis Vuitton does. If you thought for a moment their primary motivation was in educating as many people as they could as well as they could, then I think you’re living in a dream world.
  33. Pay with your palm with Amazon One.
  34. People are now living in 3D-printed houses.
  35. GPT-3 is a super-power.
  36. You can taste anything by licking this ‘screen’.
  37. Ed Boyden is a genius and is revolutionising (neuro)science.
  38. Stephen Wolfram is a genius and is potentially revolutionising physics: their computational model of the universe apparently has aspects of both quantum mechanics and general relativity in it!
  39. Robots are starting to automate biological / chemical experiments.
  40. There is a prime number which looks like the emblem of Trinity Hall College.
  41. Euler’s formula, e^i*pi + 1 = 0 has nothing to do with the number e.
  42. Gravity is not a force.
  43. The next term of the sequence pi/2, pi/2, pi/2, pi/2, pi/2, pi/2, pi/2, … is not pi/2!
  44. To help male astronauts be honest, they renamed the sizes of the peeing equipment to Extra-Large, Immense and Unbelievable.
  45. The engineering of the drinking bird toy is intricate and subtle.
  46. Randall Munroe, the creator of xkcd, put a random time and GPS coordinates in one of his older comics. Months later, a massive xkcd party happened at that location as a result.
  47. You are two. There may be more than one consciousness in your brain! Or perhaps not?
  48. A physicist turned computer scientist explains the biochemistry behind nutrition and losing weight.
  49. Vox says they need more regulation in US becaue ‘We are the only developed nation that lets drugmakers set their own prices, maximizing profits the same way sellers of chairs, mugs, shoes, or any other manufactured goods would’. They’re wrong.
  50. Wakaresaseya is a Japanese service to help you end your relationship.
  51. Michael Orthofer reads almost one book each day. And recommends you read international fiction.
  52. As an art project, Sam Winston lived in complete darkness for 2 weeks.

Maths lecturer turned Data Scientist.

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