Things We Learned in 2019 : Planet Money Tom Whitwell made an amazing list of 52 things he learned this year. We dig into our favorite items. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

Things We Learned in 2019

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

TOM WHITWELL: No. 1 - each year, humanity produces a thousand times more transistors than grains of rice and wheat combined.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

Great. Do another one from just anywhere on the list.

WHITWELL: Thirty-four - 28% of people like the smell of their own urine after eating asparagus. Five - Baijiu is the world's most popular spirit with 10 billion liters sold every year, almost entirely in China.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:

OK. Pause there and introduce yourself.

WHITWELL: Yeah. So my name is Tom Whitwell, and I am a consultant at Fluxx. And I - every year, I write a list, which is called "52 Things I Learned."

GOLDSTEIN: Thank you for doing this. I love your list.

WHITWELL: OK. Thank you.

ARONCZYK: Jacob is your biggest list fan.

GOLDSTEIN: I've been sending around your lists to my colleagues at PLANET MONEY for the last few years and saying, like, this is, like, 52 story ideas. And then this year, I was like, or maybe it's one story idea.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. Just keep going.

WHITWELL: Forty-nine - Flamin' Hot Cheetos were invented by a cleaner at a Frito-Lay factory. He's now the VP of multicultural sales for PepsiCo America.

GOLDSTEIN: We've been trying to get that guy on the show, I will say for the record.

WHITWELL: It is an amazing story.

GOLDSTEIN: It is an amazing story.

WHITWELL: Nineteen - in 2017, Google and Facebook lost $100 million between them to one scammer who sent them fake invoices.

ARONCZYK: You'd think they would have caught on after the first 10 million.

GOLDSTEIN: Maybe 20.

ARONCZYK: Maybe 20.

WHITWELL: No. 27 - Spotify pays by the song. Two three-minute songs are twice as profitable as one six-minute song, so songs are getting shorter.

GOLDSTEIN: How'd you start doing this?

WHITWELL: My background is I was a magazine editor for a long time. I then went to work for The Times.

ARONCZYK: London, right?

WHITWELL: Is there another Times somewhere else?

ARONCZYK: Well played.

WHITWELL: (Laughter).

ARONCZYK: Keep going. We're going for it.

WHITWELL: Seven - at least three private companies have fallen victim to deepfake audio fraud. In each case, a computerized voice clone of the company's CEO calls a senior financial officer to request an urgent money transfer.

GOLDSTEIN: Computerized voice clone.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm the queen of England.

ARONCZYK: I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Today on the show, Tom Whitwell's list, abridged.

ARONCZYK: We are going to do a lot of the list. We picked our favorites, and we have them for you right now in no particular order.

GOLDSTEIN: And our favorites of the favorites - we got on the phone, we went out into the world and learned more about them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: No. 42 - a man who bought the personalized number plate NULL has received over $12,000 of parking fines because the system records NULL when no number plate has been recorded.

GOLDSTEIN: And a number plate is a license plate.

WHITWELL: Twenty-four - mushrooms and truffles are fungi more closely related to humans than they are to plants. Nine - placebos are so effective that placebo placebos work. A pain cream with no active ingredients worked even when it was not used by the patient. Just owning the cream was enough to reduce pain.

No. 41 - Disco, a Japanese high-tech manufacturing company, has introduced an internal billing and payment system where every cost is charged back to workers. So if you rent a conference room, you will get charged a hundred dollars. People have really cut back on useless meetings, said one staffer.

GOLDSTEIN: Amanda, I have to say I am very impatient about meetings.

ARONCZYK: I know. I've watched you walk out of a number of them.

GOLDSTEIN: All right. And when I heard about a company that charges workers to have meetings, obviously I wanted to know more.

ARONCZYK: I know how much you want to know more, so I called up Yuji Nakamura. He wrote the Bloomberg article about this company.

What is going on here? Can you explain how this works to me?

YUJI NAKAMURA: Yeah, sure. So Disco is this company in Tokyo with a great, you know, funky name but actually a very boring business.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter) It is a surprisingly funky name. Jacob, he told me that Disco's just an abbreviation for this long Japanese name - nothing to do with being funky. The company makes machines that cut things.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. But the funky thing about Disco is their compensation scheme.

ARONCZYK: Right. And I know you want to do this, so I'm going to explain to you how it works. Everybody gets a base salary. They get to keep that no matter what. And on top of that, the company gives each employee this allowance of a virtual currency. They call the virtual currency Will, as in you have the free will to work here at Disco with us. And at the end of every quarter, that Will gets converted into real money. So people make these bonuses, sometimes huge bonuses. And Yuji told me that people use this virtual currency to pay for everything - not just meeting rooms, but they're paying for each other's time.

So wait. So if the sales guy goes to the research department and is like, hey, I really need you guys to look into this - how to cut this piece of silicon, they have to pay the research department to do the research for them?

NAKAMURA: Yeah, exactly.

GOLDSTEIN: So essentially, they have created an entire free market economy within the company. Like, the free market in this virtual currency, in Will, is going to determine actually what people do at work and what they don't do at work.

ARONCZYK: That is the whole idea. The people who run this company think that the free market is a great way to run labor within the company. So people are paying for storing their umbrellas, parking their cars, desk space, getting their trash removed.

NAKAMURA: So they really embrace raw, raw capitalism almost as, like, their Bible. To give you one example that we saw, we talked to the PR team. And for that to happen, the PR team at Disco - the PR manager actually had to pay money to borrow that meeting room in his own company. And then he had to pay all the people that came in to talk to us - that gave their time to talk to us. The PR manager actually had to pay all of them money for their time. But then after our article was published, the PR manager, the PR team - they receive money for generating publicity.

ARONCZYK: What did you think of this system?

NAKAMURA: I don't think I would ever work in this company.

ARONCZYK: No?

NAKAMURA: Yeah. For me, it's just all, you know, a little too much. Like, I did a stint on Wall Street where I met a lot of people who just like to distill all their work down to a specific number. You know, I think for that kind of person, this would be appealing, but not for me.

GOLDSTEIN: Amanda, if we got paid per podcast, I would make more podcasts.

ARONCZYK: You would make so many podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: Eighteen - mechanical devices to cheat your phone pedometer for health insurance fraud or vanity are now all over AliExpress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: Forty-eight - in 2012, only Manchester United was worth more than $2 billion. Today, there are 52 sports teams worth more than $2 billion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: Three - emojis are starting to appear in evidence in court cases, and lawyers are worried. When emoji symbols are strung together, we don't have a reliable way of interpreting their meaning. In 2017, an Israeli judge had to decide if one emoji-filled message constituted a verbal contract.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: No. 44 - some blind people can understand speech that is almost three times faster than the fastest speech sighted people can understand. They can use speech synthesizers set at 800 words per minute, and normal speech is around 120 to 150 words a minute. Research suggests that a section of the brain that normally responds to light is remapped in blind people to process sound.

GOLDSTEIN: So, you know, sometimes I listen to podcasts at, like, 1 1/2 speed, or maybe...

ARONCZYK: I feel like that should be a crime, frankly.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) A crime of efficiency. Lock me up.

Anyways, you know, I do 1 1/2 or 2. This speed Tom is talking about is like six times regular speed. And to hear what that sounds like, here is the item Tom just read at 6x - at 800 words per minute.

WHITWELL: Some blind people can understand speech that is almost three times faster than the fastest speech sighted people can understand. They can use speech synthesizers set at 800 words per minute, and normal speech is around 120 to 150 words a minute. Research suggests that a section of the brain that normally responds to light is remapped in blind people to process sound.

ARONCZYK: I understood one word - minute.

GOLDSTEIN: Some people - but only because I've heard it. Play it again.

WHITWELL: Some blind people can understand speech that is almost three times faster than the fastest speech sighted people can understand. They can use speech synthesizers set at 800 words per minute, and normal speech is around 120 to 150 words a minute. Research suggests that a section of the brain that normally responds to light is remapped in blind people to process sound.

ARONCZYK: You want to talk about this one for a second?

GOLDSTEIN: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: Sixteen - the Korean police force includes five Labradors who are clones of Quinn, a bomb-sniffing dog who found fame after finding a missing girl's body in a 2007 kidnapping.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: Twenty-five - in the U.S. Northwest, rain can damage the fruit on cherry trees, so helicopter pilots are paid to fly over the orchards using their downdraft to dry the fruit as it ripens. For the pilots, it's a risky but potentially profitable job.

GOLDSTEIN: Good. Next.

WHITWELL: OK, this is a pronunciation question. What - is it a harbinjer (ph) customer or a harbinger customer?

GOLDSTEIN: I would say jer (ph).

WHITWELL: Jer (ph).

ARONCZYK: I think it's harbinger.

WHITWELL: I would say jer (ph). OK, just wanted to check.

No. 4 - harbinger customers are customers who buy products that tend to fail. They group together, forming harbinger ZIP codes. If households in those ZIP codes buy a product, it's likely to fail. If they back a political candidate, they're likely to lose the election.

GOLDSTEIN: First of all, is that a correct characterization?

CATHERINE TUCKER: It's a - as an academic, you want to put a lot of nuance in everything, but those statements are correct, though they probably need more context. Does that make sense?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. Well, that's what you're here for.

TUCKER: Brilliant.

GOLDSTEIN: That is exactly why you're here. So you are like a - you are like a harbinger customer guru.

TUCKER: That's right. That's right.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. Can you just say your name and your job?

TUCKER: Of course. I am Catherine Tucker, and I'm a professor of marketing at MIT.

GOLDSTEIN: So several years ago, Tucker and her colleagues set out to study this pretty well-known phenomenon. Certain shoppers tend to buy new products that succeed. So if you're a company and those customers are buying your product, that is a good sign for you. Tucker and her colleagues - they wanted to understand those customers, so they got data from a chain of small grocery stores and started crunching.

TUCKER: And we found that, yes, there were some people who are predictive of success. But we found what was more remarkable was that there were some people who were predictive of failure and that if they started buying a yogurt that failed...

GOLDSTEIN: A yogurt that failed.

TUCKER: ...They were also - then they were very attracted to the next range of cookies that failed, and then the next range of cleaning products that failed.

GOLDSTEIN: So not even just food - like, all kinds of stuff they just kept picking losers.

TUCKER: They kept on picking losers all across the different product categories. That's what blew our mind in this first paper. Being the kind of person who actually liked watermelon Oreos - that is a true product - actually was very predictive of being the kind of person who also liked Crystal Pepsi. And so we decided to call them harbingers of failure.

GOLDSTEIN: Harbingers of failure - that's good. So, OK, so you have that original surprising finding, and then you keep studying it, and you get to this new paper...

TUCKER: Yes.

GOLDSTEIN: ...Where you find that this group of customers, these harbingers of failure who keep buying failed products and even backing failed political candidates, you find that they tend to live in certain neighborhoods, in certain ZIP codes. So what are the characteristics of those neighborhoods, of those ZIP codes?

TUCKER: So what we found is that, actually, you can't really predict just using observable demographic data what a harbinger ZIP code is. There's no sort of smoking gun about it. Having studied this for nearly eight years, we've just concluded there were some people who like weird things, and they like them across everything.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you know, are any businesses trying to use your findings, trying to go find harbinger customers to test things?

TUCKER: So I'm not allowed to say.

GOLDSTEIN: That sounds exciting. Not allowed to say sounds like something's happening.

TUCKER: It does sound exciting. It is happening, and that's why we're very excited.

GOLDSTEIN: Great. It was fun to talk to you. Thank you for your time.

TUCKER: OK, thank you. Lovely to talk to you.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, delightful to talk with you. Thank you for being so patient.

TUCKER: OK, bye-bye.

GOLDSTEIN: Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: Twenty-eight - Fashion++ is a Facebook-funded computer vision project that looks at a photo of your outfit and suggests minimal edits for outfit improvement like tucking in a shirt or removing an accessory.

ARONCZYK: Jacob, I'm saying this as a friend. Please take off that visor.

GOLDSTEIN: No.

WHITWELL: No. 32 - in 2018, the Nigerian government spent more on subsidies for petrol than they did on health, education or defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: Six - a Python script, an Instagram account and quite a bit of free time can get you free meals in New York City.

GOLDSTEIN: You know who loves free stuff - our producer Nick Fountain.

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: I'm Nick Fountain, PLANET MONEY producer. What's your name?

CHRIS BUETTI: Chris Buetti.

FOUNTAIN: What do you do?

BUETTI: I'm a software engineer.

FOUNTAIN: And we are here at a fancy food court in New York City, and we're going to do the next item on the list right here, right now. All right, Chris, can you pull up your Instagram account?

BUETTI: Sure.

FOUNTAIN: What's it called?

BUETTI: Beautiful.newyorkcity.

FOUNTAIN: How many followers you got?

BUETTI: About 54,000.

FOUNTAIN: All right, so tell me the story behind this account.

BUETTI: So, yeah. I was, you know, eating at all these restaurants in New York City. And as we all know, New York City is, like, the most expensive place in the world. And every time I sat down, I was thinking about how some influencer with a bunch of followers on Instagram was getting the same meal as me for free and just posting a picture of it. And I wanted to be part of that. So I'm not interesting, and there's nothing cool, really, about...

FOUNTAIN: But you do know code.

BUETTI: But I do know how to code, yeah.

FOUNTAIN: Real simply, what is the automation that you have set up for this Instagram account?

BUETTI: It covers everything you can think of, from finding the picture, posting the picture, interacting with people.

FOUNTAIN: So it finds restaurants that are near you in New York City. It emails them and says, hey, can I get a free meal in exchange for a post about your establishment?

BUETTI: Exactly.

FOUNTAIN: How many free meals have you gotten?

BUETTI: At this point, I've gotten a lot.

FOUNTAIN: What are we talking - 10?

BUETTI: Well, in terms of offers, it's definitely in the hundreds.

FOUNTAIN: I got to say, when I read this item, I was like, this is the perfect distillation of 2019 in a nutshell, right? Like, programmer getting free meals.

BUETTI: Yeah. I mean, I can't disagree with that.

FOUNTAIN: Can I see the magic happen?

BUETTI: Oh, yeah. You want to come to one with me?

FOUNTAIN: Let's get lunch.

BUETTI: Sounds great.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDSTEIN: Next.

WHITWELL: Twenty-three - sometime in the 1990s, it seems the U.S. forgot how to make a critical component of some nuclear warheads.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: Thirty-three - according to WaterAid research, women spend 97 billion hours a year looking for a safe place to go to the loo. That equals 46 million working years, which is the same as the workforce of Germany, the fourth largest economy in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: Fifty - six reluctant Chinese hitmen who hired each other to carry out a murder all went to jail when their outsourcing scheme collapsed.

GOLDSTEIN: What is this one?

WHITWELL: So this one is a guy hired a hitman to kill somebody else. That hitman said, I'm not doing that. He gave half the money to somebody else. He said, I'm not doing that. He gave half the money to someone else. Went all the way down the chain. The last guy was getting paid so little money, he said, this isn't worth my while to do it. He went back to the victim and told him what had happened and said, we should split the money. Instead, the victim called the police, and all six of them went to prison.

GOLDSTEIN: That feels like it's a perfect parable of something.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITWELL: I think I put that on the list because it sounds so much like a fantastic Quentin Tarantino film that hasn't been made.

GOLDSTEIN: Oh, good one. Not a parable of anything except how absurd the world is.

WHITWELL: Yes. And finally, No. 52 - asking, what questions do you have for me, can be dramatically more effective than asking, any questions, at the end of a talk.

GOLDSTEIN: Tom, what questions do you have for us?

WHITWELL: I have no questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDSTEIN: If you have any questions, you can email us at planetmoney@npr.org, or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram - @planetmoney.

ARONCZYK: Today's show was produced by Nick Fountain. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt. And our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark.

GOLDSTEIN: The deepfake audio of the queen of England was provided by a company called CereProc.

ARONCZYK: I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm Jacob Goldstein. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Hello. This is the queen of England. Please transfer 100 million pounds to the checking account of Jacob Goldstein. The current number - 912377671.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITWELL: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, No. 4, three, two, No. 1.

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