Never Normal Newsletter

21 Super Interesting Things I Learned in 2021

1. Let’s Start with Hello 👋

The word “Hello” dates back to around 1820, and it only came into common usage in English after the invention of the telephone. Before that, people greeted each other with phrases like “Good Day”.

It was Thomas Edison who suggested “Hello” as the word to say when you answer a phone. Alexander Graham Bell (and Mr. Burns) preferred “Ahoy!”

That’s not the only common word that’s pretty new…

2. Okay! 🆗

The word “okay” is basically a meme that went viral and stuck around. The phrase “all correct” was bastardized to “oll korrect” which was later abbreviated to “O.K.” (this is only one of the theories on the etymology of okay, but it seems to be the most plausible).

After traveling around the world in 2012-13, I noted that “okay” was probably the single most universal word in the world.

Some expressions are common too, even if the literal translations differ…

3. Hand Taste 🖐

In Korean, “son mat” (손맛) means “hand taste” or “taste of the hand” — cooking based on intuition and experience, rather than a recipe (source).

In Russian, they say “na glaz” (by eye). If you know an equivalent phrase in another language, please reply and let me know!

Speaking of Russian idioms…

4. The New Guy 🍼

Russians say, “молоко на губах не обсохло” which literally translates to something like “the milk is still wet on his lips” or as we say in English, “he’s still wet behind the ears” (which is a pretty weird expression when you think about it).

This next one might be the best one of the whole list…

5. Relax Comrades 💊

It was revealed that American scientists brought a suitcase of MDMA (aka Ecstasy) to Moscow in an effort to add some peace, love, and empathy to the 1985 nuclear negotiations between President Reagan and the Soviet leadership (source).

Speaking of drugs…

6. Not Just a Name 😵

Coca Cola still includes extracts from the coca leaf (ie the cocaine plant). The coca leaves are grown in South America and processed in New Jersey at the only facility in the entire United States that is authorized to import and process cocaine (source).

While we’re still on the subject…

7. Same Same But Different

Like cocaine and methamphetamines, Adderall (one of the most common drugs prescribed for ADHD), is a stimulant. Here’s the shocking part:

“Up to 35% of people between the ages of 17 and 30 are taking Adderall in order to work, study, and focus in their daily life.”

I learned this from the excellent Huberman Lab podcast episode about ADHD. I wrote a whole Twitter thread about it here.

Why so much trouble focusing?

8. Screen Crack 📱

“Several studies have reported that US adults and teenagers check their phone up to 150 times a day, or every six to seven minutes that they are awake.”

Source: Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, The Distracted Mind (Book)

You know who to thank…

9. Boolean Search 🔎

George Boole, the forefather of computer science and algorithms, came up with the idea for using mathematical symbols to create formulas representing logic.

While I was doing some research for a talk on creativity earlier this year, I learned that the key idea hit Boole one afternoon in the 1840’s as he walked across a field. He believed it was a religious vision (source).

Maybe we should all spend more time walking in nature…

10. Who learned from whom? 🐦

Animals could teach us a thing or two. Here’s a bird sewing a leaf with a pine needle:

Speaking of animals doing things that I thought only people do…

11. Maybe That’s How Santa Manages It 🌀

Here’s a reindeer cyclone:

It looks an awful lot like Tawaf (one of the rituals Muslims perform on the Hajj pilgrimage):

Apparently some fish have a similar behavior. And then there are ant “death spirals”:

Another way to get everyone in sync…

12. The name means “I expand” 🌲🌲🌲

Apparently the largest organism on the planet is “Pando”, a forest of 47,000 Aspen trees that are actually all one organism, connected by a root system weighing 12 million pounds (via Codie Sanchez).

Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if we humans all saw each other as part of one giant “superorganism” instead of as separate individuals…

13. There’s a word for that 👨‍👨‍👦‍👦👨‍👩‍👧👨‍👩‍👦‍👦

In Arabic, “Asabiyyah” refers to social cohesion or a shared sense of purpose.

I can’t help but feeling like in the U.S. we’re not only missing our own word for this, we’re missing the feeling that this word describes too.

I guess you can fake it ’til you make it…

14. Lights, camera, topple! 🎬

Remember those iconic images of jubilant Iraqis tearing down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad back in 2003?

That event was staged for the media by the U.S. forces (source)

Speaking of never ending wars…

15. Everything had to be invented at some point 📜

The concept of the nation state as we know it dates back to 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia that followed the 30 Years War. I learned this (and #13 above) from listening to many hours of interviews with Balaji in 2021.

But not every country is technically a country…

16. I wonder if they squabble? 🤴🤴

Andorra, the tiny, mountainous country between Spain and France is a “principality.” Maybe I knew that before, but I never really thought about what that word actually means – the country is ruled by a prince (duh).

Or in Andorra’s case, two princes: the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell (more here).

I can’t think of a clever way to connect that to the next one…

17. Timeless Advice / Tattoo Ideas 🏛

The Ancient Greek Temple of Apollo at Delphi was inscribed with three maxims:


You know what else brings ruin…

18. Yikes 🐍

Things like plane crashes and shark attacks make for scary movies and news stories, but statistically, they’re actually very rare.

Snake bites on the other hand…

“An estimated 1.2 million people died from snakebites in India between 2000 and 2019” (source)

But if you live in America, you should be more concerned about…

19. Food not fit for human consumption 🍳

In short, industrially processed “vegetable oils” (aka seed oils) are bad for you. You’re much better off cooking with and eating healthy animal fats and cold pressed olive oil.

That much I had heard before. But this great video helped me understand why. I also learned that the American Heart Association was funded by Proctor and Gamble (makers of Crisco and other seed oils) in the 1940s.

I suppose they want you to forget that part…

20. Hungry Hungry Hippocampus 🤔

The part of your brain that you use to think about the future is also the part that you use to remember the past (Ness Labs).

This makes the idea that we might be “remembering the future” seem a little less wacky.

Speaking of remembering…

21. Turned out to be a good investment!

I remember reading in 2010 that contrarian investor Peter Thiel started a fellowship program to pay smart, young people not to go to university and to build something / start a startup instead.

But what ever happened after that?

I learned recently that one of the Thiel Fellowship grant recipients was Vitalik Buterin, developer of Ethereum blockchain and cryptocurrency.

I lied, sort of.

This list is actually 21 things I learned in the second half of 2021. I went through my notes for the year and got as far back as July when I realized I was already over 21 things. Should I share the rest?

If you enjoyed this list…

  1. Send me a message and let me know, so I’ll do another one.
  2. Tell me which item was your favorite
  3. Send this post to a friend or share this link on social media.

That’s all for this year! More soon…

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I write occasional emails to share what I’m thinking, learning, and doing. It’s all related to the idea of breaking free from the “default plan” in life.

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