Coolest Things I Learned in 2019

I write a weekly email called the Monday Musings.

The most popular part of the newsletter is a section called “Coolest Things I Learned This Week.”

It’s fun and eclectic, interesting and intriguing. This is a collection of the most popular ideas I shared in 2019.

Subscribe here if you want to see ideas like this every week.

Note: I’ve lost some of the sources for these factoids. If you see something that’s yours, and you’d like me to credit you, please email me. Happy to make the change for you.

Find Your Tribe

“One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, back when I was 23 and newly out of school, is this: look around and figure out who you want to be on your team. Figure out the people around you that you want to work with for the rest of your life. Figure out the people who are smart & awesome, who share your values, who get things done — and maybe most important, who you like to be with and who you want to help win. And treat them right, always. Look for ways to help, to work together, to learn. Because in 20 years you’ll all be in amazing places doing amazing things.”

Writing: The World’s Best Networking Activity

Writing is the most scalable professional networking activity – stay home, don’t go to events/conferences, and just put ideas down.

Building your network, your audience, and your ideas will be something you’ll want to do over your entire career. Think of your writing like a multi-decade project.


I’ve noticed a weird pattern: In most of the best marriages I see, one person is an early-bird, and the other is a night-owl. They have opposite circadian rhythms.

I think this is healthy. The two partners get the benefits of time together and time alone, which helps the marriage.

Boosting Productivity

Small increases in productivity have a huge long-term impact. From Nick Bostrom:

“Imagine a tool was invented to help a researcher to improve by just 1%.

The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the tool, the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists.

Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes.”

New York City Looks Like a Movie When it Rains

These photos are spectacular.

Here’s the photographer’s website.


Intellectual Fashion

  1. “A pattern I’ve seen in many different fields: even though many people have worked hard in the field, only a small fraction of the space of possibilities has been explored, because they’ve all worked on similar things. Even the smartest, most imaginative people are surprisingly conservative when deciding what to work on. People who would never dream of being fashionable in any other way get sucked into working on fashionable problems.” — Paul Graham

  2. “It has always appalled me that really bright scientists almost all work in the most competitive fields, the ones in which they are making the least difference. In other words, if they were hit by a truck, the same discovery would be made by somebody else about 10 minutes later.” — Aubrey de Grey

The Popularity of Smoking

  1. It’s crazy that people used to smoke cigarettes on airplanes. In fact, the history of cigarette bans is surprisingly recent. According to Wikipedia, “the U.S. ban on inflight smoking began with domestic flights of 2 hours or less in April 1988, and to all domestic and international flights in 2000.”

  2. The U.S. Army used to give cigarettes to every soldier.

  3. Cyclists in the Tour de France used to smoke to increase blood flow, according to my friend Brendan.


Ford Motors

From 1908-1916, Ford increased production of the Model-T by 40 times in just 8 years, while more than halving its price.


Where Music Labels Make Money

I enjoyed reading this leaked Sony Memo. Catalog music (which includes reissues, live albums, and greatest hits albums) provides the majority of the revenue in the music business.

Here what stuck out from the memo:

  • For Sony, catalog provides 50% of the revenue and 200% of the profits of recorded music.

  • “Streaming revenues tend to be more heavily weighted to catalog. Pandora and Spotify are probably 65% catalog under this definition. Licensing… is mostly catalog as well. Therefore, if Sony Recorded Music (ex-Japan) is doing $250MM in EBITDA today, catalog is probably generating approximately $500 MM and the new release business, which is 98% of the headcount, is losing $250MM per year.”

  • “The catalog is also primarily generating this revenue off “deep” catalog that is at least 5 years old or older. The great classics of pop music are stable earners, much like the consistent songs that generate most of the music publishing revenues.”

Against the Majority

1. “The majority is always wrong. The minority is rarely right.” — Henrik Ibsen

2. “If everybody is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” — Benjamin Franklin

What Kobe Bryant Reads

“I made a point of reading the referee’s handbook. One of the rules I gleaned from it was that each referee has a designated slot where he is supposed to be on the floor. If the ball, for instance, is in place W, referees X, Y, and Z each have an area on the court assigned to them.

When they do that, it creates dead zones, areas on the floor where they can’t see certain things. I learned where those zones were, and I took advantage of them. I would get away with holds, travels, and all sorts of minor violations simply because I took the time to understand the officials’ limitations.”

Where is Wealth Concentrated?

GDP Density 2019.png

Art Crime

Art crime is far more widespread than you might guess.

By some estimates, more than 50,000 pieces of artwork are stolen each year, amounting to annual losses of around $6 to $8 billion globally. This makes art theft one of the most valuable criminal enterprises around, exceeded only by drug trafficking and arms dealing.

Forgery — a somewhat more difficult phenomenon to estimate — results in a regular drumbeat of scandals at auction houses and museums every year.

The Genius of Unrecognized Simplicities

“Most geniuses—especially those who lead others—prosper not by deconstructing intricate complexities but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.” — Andy Benoit

How to Be Discovered

From Steve Cheney:

“The easiest way to be discovered right now in technology and perhaps many fields is to create your own independent blog and write. There is a huge dearth in availability of good, current, first party content today.

The single most important advice I can give to actually write is to write.

The thing that happens which you don’t see until you write is that your content engages some of the smartest people who are lurking around the internet. And they reach out to you.”

Generating Faces

Samsung researchers have released a model that can generate faces in new poses from just a single image/frame (for each of face, pose). Done by building a well-trained landmark model in advance & one-shotting from that.

Mona Lisa 2019.gif

Wicked Learning Environments

Hilarious anecdote from David Epstein:

“The wider world is mostly characterized by wicked learning environments, where you can’t see information. It’s hidden from us. Feedback is delayed and sometimes inaccurate.

One of the examples is a famous New York City physician who was renowned for his ability to predict that patients would get typhoid. He predicted the sickness time and again. He would palpate their tounge (feel around their tongue) and predict, weeks before patients had a single symptom, over and over, and became famous, and as one of his colleagues said, he was a more productive carrier of typhoid than even Typhoid Mary because he was giving his patients Typhoid with his hands. In that case, the feedback he was receiving was reinforcing exactly the wrong lesson.

So that’s the extreme of a wicked environment where your feedback teaches exactly the wrong lesson.”

Raising People’s Ambitions

Love this paragraph from Tyler Cowen:

“At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous. This is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life.”

The Magic of Twitter

“Twitter is the most amazing networking and learning network ever built.

For someone whose pursuing their dream job, or chasing a group of mentors or peers, it’s remarkable. In any given field, 50-80% of the top experts in that field are on Twitter and they’re sharing ideas, and you can connect to them or follow them in your personal feed.

If you get lucky enough and say something they find interesting, they might follow you, and the reason this becomes super interesting is that unlocks direct message, and now all of a sudden you can communicate directly or electronically with that individual. Very, very powerful.

If you’re not using Twitter, you’re missing out.” — Bill Gurley

Gambling and Cowboy Boots

On September 24th, 1980, a man wearing cowboy boots and carrying two brown suitcases entered Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. One suitcase held $777,000 in cash; the other was empty. After converting the money into chips, the man approached a craps table on the casino floor and put everything on the backline. This meant he was betting against the woman rolling the dice. If she lost, he’d double his money. If she won, he’d lose everything. Scarcely aware of the amount riding on her dice, the woman rolled three times: 6, 9, 7.

“Pay the backline,” said the dealer. And just like that, the man won over $1.5 million. He calmly filled the empty suitcase with his winnings, exited Binion’s into the desert afternoon, and drove off. It was the largest amount ever bet on a dice roll in America.

Self-Driving Cars

“Some scientists believe that driverless cars will not work unless they learn to be irrational.

If such cars stop reliably whenever a pedestrian appears in front of them, pedestrian crossings will be unnecessary and jaywalkers will be able to marching to the road, forcing a driverless car to stop suddenly, a great discomfort to its occupants. To prevent this, driverless cars may have to learn to be angry, and you occasionally maliciously fail to stop in time and strike the pedestrian on the shins.

If you are wholly predictable, people learn to hack you.”

The Rise of Dollar Stores

“Four new dollar stores will open in the U.S. every single day of 2019. That’s a new dollar store every six hours. There are more dollar stores than there are Walmarts, McDonald’s and CVS stores combined.”

Don’t Lie to Yourself

A powerful line from the “Elder” named Zosima in The Brothers Karamozov:

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love… “Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially to yourself.”

Tall Cars and Tophats

In 1940, cars had high roofs. But by 1960, they didn’t because men stopped wearing hats.

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The Booming Self-Storage Industry

The self storage industry is growing fast, and has grown into a $38 billion industry. Some statistics stand out from this recent article:

  1. “One in 11 Americans pays an average of $91.14 per month to use self-storage.”

  2. “According to SpareFoot, a company that tracks the self-storage industry, the United States boasts more than 50,000 facilities and roughly 2.311 billion square feet of rentable space.”

  3. The industry has grown by 7.7 percent per year since 2012.

  4. “Paying for storage space is like a gym membership; consumers join and forget about it. Even better for owners, they’re often willing to accept slight increases in cost, rather than deal with the hassle of moving their possessions across town to a competitor’s warehouse.”

  5. New York has roughly 50 million square feet of self-storage space. And yet, with 3.5 square feet of self storage per resident, it’s the most “underserved market” in America according to CBRE (the national average is 7.2 square feet per person).

Self-Storage 2019.jpeg

Kumi Yamashita

Japanese artist Kumi Yamashita winds a single black thread around a grid of nails on a wooden board to create intricate portraits.

Kumi 2019.jpg

Ira Glass on Taste

Every creator needs to hear these words from Ira Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Evolutionary Reasons for Humor

From Bret Weinstein:

  1. “Laughter is the sound of comprehension.” — Tom Stoppard

  2. Humor is the mechanism where we sort out the grey area of what can and can’t be said.

  3. Humor treads at the frontier of consciousness. When a comic finds a funny joke, they are unearthing a truth that people are only kind of aware of, but the whole room grasps that everybody else is aware of the truth, and laughter ensues.

How Temperature Changes

A band of equal average annual temperature between Europe and North America. Demonstrates the importance of the gulf stream for keeping Europe quite a few degrees above its latitude would expect.

Temperature 2019.jpeg

On Friendship

Two wonderful quotes from John O’Donahue:

  1. “One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences. Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between words.”

  2. “When was the last time you had a great conversation? A conversation that wasn’t just two intersecting monologues, but when you overheard yourself saying things you never knew you knew, that you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that found places within you that you thought you had lost, and the sense of an “eventive” conversation that brought the two of you into a different plain and then forthly, a conversation that continued to sing afterwards for weeks in your mind? Conversations like that are food and drink for the soul.”

Frozen Lake Michigan

A passenger snapped this photo while flying into Chicago.

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Holy Moly Guacamole!

“Today, humanity fabricates 1,000 times more transistors annually than the entire world grows grains of wheat and rice combined. Collectively, all those transistors consume more electricity than the state of California.”

China’s Infrastructure

  1. Between 2011 and 2013, china used 50% more cement than the United States in the 20th century.

  2. Of the world’s 100 highest bridges, 81 are in China, including some unfinished ones.

  3. In 2016 alone, China added 26,100 bridges on roads, including 363 “extra large” ones with an average length of about a mile, government figures show.

  4. China opens around 50 high bridges each year. The entire rest of the world opens ten.

  5. China also has the world’s longest bridge, the 102-mile Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge, a high-speed rail viaduct running parallel to the Yangtze River, and is nearing completion of the world’s longest sea bridge, a 14-mile cable-stay bridge skimming across the Pearl River Delta, part of a 22-mile bridge and tunnel crossing that connects Hong Kong and Macau with mainland China.

Why Chips and Coca-Cola are Addicting

Here’s Warren Buffett: “Cola has no taste memory. You can drink one at 9am, 11am, 5pm. You can’t do that with cream soda, root beer, orange, grape. You get sick of them after a while. The average person drinks 64 ounces of liquid per day, and you can have all 64 ounces of that be Coke.”

Same with Doritos, Cheetos, most popular junk food. They are engineered to overcome “sensory-specific satiety” and to give a sense of “vanishing caloric density.”

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I reviewed my notes from Robert Pirsig’s masterpiece, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to write about the Aesthetic Delta.

These quotes from the book stuck out:

  1. “To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.”

  2. “If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down.”

  3. “An experiment is never a failure solely because it fails to achieve predicted results. An experiment is a failure only when it also fails adequately to test the hypothesis in question, when the data it produces don’t prove anything one way or another.”

  4. “You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it.”

  5. “The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality.”

  6. “When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.”

  7. “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

Famous People in History

Here’s how far away you are from famous people in history.

1 generation = 25 years

Famous People 2019.jpg

Growth in American Highways

Some background on the U.S. highway system, all from this excellent paper:

  1. The bulk of the highway system routing was determined in the 1940s and early 1950s, pre-dating federal government funding.

  2. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 established the initial 40,000-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways spanning the United States.

  3. President Eisenhower envisioned the highways as a means to encourage economic development, speed traffic, and provide for the national defense.

  4. Though Interstate construction lasted for over 40 years, most miles were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s—54 and 31 percent respectively.

  5. By 1990, the federal government spent three times as much to build a highway mile as it did in the 1960s, increasing from roughly $8 million per mile to roughly $25 million per mile.

American Highways 2019.jpeg

Website Typos It gets 5,000 views a day and millions of emails because people mistype The domain was purchased as a gift in 1996 for a man’s wife. They still own the domain which is now just a plain html page with a lot of questions answered about the site.

When People Work Together

Working Together 2019.jpg

Well, that’s Interesting!

A 90s study showed that women preferred the scents of men whose immune systems were most different from their own immune-system genes. Evolutionarily this makes sense as, children should be healthier if their parents’ genes vary, protecting them from more pathogens.

How Work is Changing

In 1870, 46% of jobs were in agriculture, and 35% were in crafts or manufacturing, according to economist Robert Gordon.

Few professions relied on a worker’s brain. You didn’t think; you labored, without interruption, and your work was visible and tangible. Today, that’s flipped. Thirty-eight percent of jobs are now designated as “managers, officials, and professionals.” These are decision-making jobs. Another 41% are service jobs that often rely on your thoughts as much as your actions.

Luxuries Become Necessities

“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.”

The Continental Axis Hypothesis

One of the most striking hypotheses in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was that technology diffused more easily along lines of latitude than along lines of longitude because climate changed more rapidly along lines of longitude making it more difficult for both humans and technologies to adapt. Thus, a long East-West axis, such as that found in Eurasia, meant a bigger “market” for technology and thus greater development.

Continental Axis 2019.jpg

Douglas Adams’ Rules of Technology

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.