40 interesting things I learned in 2019 (so far)

Emmet Gowin's aerial picture of the Nevada test site
Credit: Emmit Gowin

Inspired by Tom Whitwell’s list of 52 things he learned last year, I created my own list (with a focus on science, aviation, technology and food) which I’m still adding to throughout 2019.

  1. There is only about one atom per cubic metre of space in the universe. Source: George Gamow’s book One Two Three Infinity
  2. In the late 1700s Oxford had a climate similar to that of present day Edinburgh. Source: The Times
  3. Commercial airline pilots sometimes greet fellow pilots at cruising altitude by flashing their landing lights. Source: FT
  4. Sesame Street has a venture capital firm. Source: The Times
  5. Japanese researchers once invented a wasabi fire alarm which can wake deaf people up in the night. Source: Quartz
  6. Moby is the great-great-great-nephew of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, hence the nickname. Source: The Times
  7. The first cultivated carrots were purple and yellow, not orange. Source: Pop Sci
  8. Ciabatta bread was invented in 1982 by an Italian jealous of the popularity of the French baguette. Source: The Guardian
  9. The word “blazer” comes from the colour of the red ivy flowers growing on the side of the St John’s College building, Cambridge University, which the rowers of the Lady Margaret Boat Club used as inspiration for their outfits. Source: The Telegraph
  10. In parts of New Orleans the graves are overground concrete tombs because of the city’s water level. Source: Itotd
  11. Until 1987 it was common to operate on newborn babies without anaesthetic. Source: The Times
  12. Reuters News Agency was founded in 1850 with a flock of 45 messenger pigeons which filled a “telegraph gap” between Brussels and Aachen in western Europe. Source: Reuters
  13. Sharks have been around for at least 420 million years and survived four of the “big five” mass extinctions. Source: New Scientist
  14. Ordnance survey, the UK mapping company, was set up because the English were worried about revolutions in Scotland and France and wanted to know where they could easily transport their troops in case of war. Source: Ordnance Survey
  15. Mosquitos may have killed half of the 108 billion people who have ever lived across our 200,000 year existence. Source: New Scientist
  16. Only 20 per cent of Americans can do a single push-up. Source: The Atlantic
  17. Fanta was developed in Nazi Germany in response to an embargo on Coca-Cola. Source: The Local via Frank Swain
  18. Finland has a government committee called the “Committee for the Future” dedicated to discussing and solving big, future problems. Source: Jared Diamond interview in New Scientist
  19. Gold smugglers have set up fake gold mines in Uganda which are designed to legitimise gold that’s been smuggled in from Congo. Source: The Economist
  20. Over millions of years of chimp and human evolution there have been, on average, six changes to the roughly three billion letters in our genetic code every year. Source: The Guardian
  21. Spandex, the material used in most leggings, was invented during the Second World War when the military was trying to find a new material for parachutes. Source: The Guardian
  22. Almost all bananas sold today are direct descendants of one plant grown in the early 1800s in the greenhouse of Chatsworth House in the peak district. Source: BBC News
  23. The Nike “Just Do It” slogan was inspired by the last words of a murderer who was about to be executed by firing squad. Source: New Yorker Mar 18 2019
  24. The brain consumes about a fifth of a person’s metabolic energy each day. Cooking was essential for human evolution, because it means we don’t need to spend all day chewing — unlike chimps. Source: 1843 Magazine
  25. Swatch once invented a new unit of time for the internet called the “beat” which split the day into 1000 parts. Source: BBC News
  26. The first reference to a “freelancer” in literature is Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe, where a feudal lord talks about his army of solders for hire taking over shipping in Hull. Source: Anna Codrea-Rado’s (excellent) freelancing newsletter
  27. Candle flames are hollow. Source: Massimo
  28. San Francisco has a dedicated human faeces removal team. Source: New York Times
  29. Honey found in Egyptian tombs for thousands of years is still unspoiled and edible thanks to its sugar content, acidity and low moisture. Source: Smithsonian Magazine
  30. Medical scanners are built with steel from sunken battleships because the steel has not been contaminated by the decades of nuclear testing. Source: Science Made Simple
  31. The yellow traffic signal was first conceived in 1920. Source: The Register
  32. Naturally occurring radioactivity in the body from isotopes like carbon-14 and potassium-40 disrupts the DNA of 85,000 cells every single day. Source: New Scientist
  33. China has only one time zone for the whole country, despite covering five time zones geographically. Source: New Scientist
  34. As many as 100,000 people are buried in mass, unmarked graves in Spain after decades under General Franco’s rule. Source: The Guardian
  35. The National Insurance fund which pays for everyone’s state pensions in the UK will run out by 2032. Source: FT Money Podcast and FT Adviser
  36. More nuclear bombs have been dropped on or have exploded in or above American soil than on that of any other country in the world. The true scale of US nuclear testing (1,054 tests in total) was unknown publicly until May 1993. Source: Emmet Gowin in The Nevada Test Site
  37. One of the best (open) sources of air pollution in Beijing is the US embassy’s RSS feed reporting the real-time air quality index. Source: Adam Vaughan
  38. Quorn, the “original” meat replacement product based on starch and protein, took decades to develop and cost £2 billion in today’s money to develop. Source: The Bottom Line
  39. Tom Hanks is related to Abraham Lincoln. “The maiden name of Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, was Hanks, and yes, it’s the same Hanks.” Source: The New York Times
  40. One of the major causes of plane crashes in Israel and Lebanon are bird strikes caused by migrating pelicans and hawks flying to Africa every spring and back again in the autumn. The Israeli Air Force has lost many aircraft to flocks of birds which are too small to be picked up on radar. To prevent this, Israel and Lebanon have an arrangement involving birdwatchers who warns each other’s air traffic control about migrating flocks. Source: TAUVOD

UK Post Box review: the most luxurious digital service I use

uk post box interface
The UK Post Box interface which lets you send snail mail (physical letters!) using a computer

Sending physical letters or “snail mail” in the age of email is still necessary sometimes. Whether it’s banks who refuse to accept PDF statements via email or magazines who won’t let you unsubscribe unless you physically write to them (GAH!), you might still have to go through the rigamarole of typing something up, printing it, finding an envelope and stamps and heading down to a post office to send a letter. Fortunately, there’s a solution. Virtual post service UK Post Box lets you do all this from a web browser.

UK Post Box review

Using UK Post Box is simply a case of uploading a PDF and pressing a few buttons, and the company will print out your message, put it in an envelope and send it off for you, first class. The price is a little higher than it would cost for you to do it yourself, but it more than makes up for itself in time saved.

UK Post Box is mostly designed for individuals who want a post forwarding service, or a fixed post box address in the UK which can receive letters and parcels (the company will even scan in your post and send it you as a PDF) but personally I find the snail mail element the most useful. I haven’t tried any of the other services, but I can imagine any UK expats, frequent travellers or people looking for a private address would find the other bits of UK Post Box useful.

How does UK Post Box work?

The company has a sorting facility which is based in Poole which is the base for their post boxes and their sending and receiving service. You use a web interface similar to an email inbox to upload documents and input addresses.

How much does UKPostBox cost?

It cost me £2.35 to send a three page letter to my bank. You do have to load up your account with credit (I added £25 at the start of the year), and this eventually expires after a year. As I said, this is a luxury service. It will always be cheaper to do the posting yourself.

How do I sign up to UKPostBox?

Sign up to UK Post Box using my referral link and you’ll share a small discount with me on your membership.

AI and algorithms are useless if it takes a decade to fix simple problems

I’d like to talk about a simple problem on Google which I think partially explains why technology companies seem so utterly useless at preventing the spread of terrorist content.

In November last year, Google said it had fixed a bug on the visa waiver search engine results page after an investigation by the BBC forced Google to pay attention to the problem.

This “bug” was allowing people to use Google’s advertising network to set up sites that charged to file visa waivers. Instead of going directly to the US Government’s website – which still costs about $14 – they would charge users up to $99 for “checking” their application. 

The problem was first identified in 2009. It wasn’t “fixed” until 2018, eight years later.

I even fell for it in August 2009:

Why did it take so long?

Google’s solution to this problem – like a hammer which only sees nail – was to “develop a machine learning process to wipe out unofficial Esta ads.”

That process took eight years.

In the meantime, countless numbers of people were paying over and above what they should have for entering their details into a very simple online form.

Of course, Google met its minimum standard obligation of investigating and taking down any links that users reported were incorrect, but the companies taking advantage of Google’s incompetence could very simply edit the domain name and resubmit, a relatively trivial operation.

The BBC even sent some unofficial ads to Google, which its algorithms dutifully allowed to be displayed.

(It turns out that this process didn’t even fix the problem. It’s still possible to see unofficial advertising for ESTA visa waivers on Google. This story found dozens of fake ads charging up to $100, days after Google said it had fixed the problem.)

Now apply this problem to media savvy terrorist attacks

A Google mindset of do it first, collect data, and improve it over time (or Facebook’s “move fast and break things”) has dramatic consequences when more malicious operators take advantage of their weaknesses.

Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have all been far too slow in taking down videos of the New Zealand terrorist attack. Even though they all have large, dedicated and sophisticated moderation teams seeking to remove this information, they are unable to stop people re-uploading videos. 

The obvious question is, why don’t technology companies do it manually? I agree with Alex Hern who says, they could have, “one person – just one – to sit there searching for ‘New Zealand terror attack’ and just delete the obvious reposts that keep popping up on that search term.”

So why don’t they do it? I also agree with Alex’s reason, that they have, “a desire to build scalable systems rather than one-off applications of human labour.”

Technology solutions: 
-Create a new algorithm to identify suspect terrorist uploads
-Use content ID matching algorithms
-Use AI-enhanced moderation
Human solutions:
-Disable video uploads temporarily
-Manually delete videos
-Employ editors to approve questionable content first

Technology companies can’t fix every problem with an algorithm

Just as big tech doesn’t invest in ideas that don’t “scale”, they won’t invest in solving problems unless there’s a scalable solution. Technology companies think they can “fix” unsolvable problems with maths. They think they can “fix” the problem of terrorists sharing their content with an algorithm, just like they can “fix” the problem of people being scammed for ESTA forms.

As the ESTA example show, they can’t. 

Humans might not be as fast than algorithms, but they’re cleverer, and technology companies need to wise up too.