From 3D cheese printers to multimillion-dollar number plates, these are 2016’s oddest oddities

Better and better every year.
Better and better every year.
Image: Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko
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As part of the product and service innovation company Fluxx, it is my business to dig around the odder side of Earth. Here is a list of the 52 most surprising things I learned in 2016, from hologram receptionists to Iran’s six million secret iPhones and playable petri dishes.

  1. Call Me Baby is a call centre for cybercriminals who need a human voice as part of a scam. They charge $10 for each call in English, and $12 for calls in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish.
  2. Google’s advertising tools can track real-world shop visits. If a customer sees an ad then visits the relevant store a few days later, that conversion will appear in Google Adwords. Customers are tracked via (anonymized) Google-Maps data. They’ve been doing this since 2014.
  3. In a mixed-gender group, when women talk 25% of the time or less, it’s seen as being “equally balanced.” If women talk 25–50% of the time, they’re seen as “dominating the conversation.”
  4. In July, 800,000 volunteers planted 49 million trees in Uttar Pradesh, India.
  5. 40% of adults aged 16 to 60 in OECD countries can’t use a computer well enough to delete an email.
  6. A Japanese insurance company is offering policies that cover social-media backlash.
  7. Abu Dhabi numberplate “1” sold for Dh31m ($8.5 million) in November. However, the cheque bounced, and the buyer was arrested.
  8. Australian musicians have performed with a synthesizer controlled by a petri dish of live human neurons: “The neurons were fed dopamine before the gig and went ballistic. The interaction with the drummer was very tight. The drum hits are processed into triggers and sent to the neurons.”
  9. Less than 20% of Tencent’s (the creator of WeChat) revenues come from advertising, compared to over 95% for Facebook.
  10. Opendoor is a controversial startup with this simple offer: “We’ll buy your home for market price, based off an algorithm, within 72 hours.”
  11. There are six million iPhones in Iran, despite them being banned by both the Iranian government and international sanctions.
  12. Pork scratchings are good for you.
  13. The percentage of older Americans with dementia has fallen by almost 25% since 2000. In other words, a million fewer people had dementia in 2012 than we’d have expected in 2000.
  14. A Californian company called Skinny Mirror sells mirrors that make you look thinner. When installed in the changing rooms of clothes shops, they can increase sales by 18%.
  15. “Bangladesh was hit by a massive cyclone in May. Half a million people were evacuated, and thanks to early warning systems and shelters, only 23 people died. Cyclone deaths in the country have fallen by 98% since the systems were developed following a 1991 cyclone in which 140,000 people died.” The system involves 2,500 huge concrete cyclone shelters that are also used as schools.
  16. In Hong Kong, you can buy a $15,000 device called an IMSI Catcher that harvests the mobile phone numbers of everyone walking past, collecting up to 1,200 numbers a minute.
  17. Uber — which offers bank accounts to new drivers who don’t have their own account — is the largest acquirer of small business bank accounts in the US today.
  18. Absurdly expensive items on restaurant menus have a positive halo effect on the rest of the prices. “When there’s a $1,000 frittata on the menu, suddenly $26 for French toast seems reasonable.”
  19. In 2013, the Dubai Government launched a scheme encouraging healthy living by offering a gram of gold for every kilo of weight lost.
  20. Asking a user for their password once, instead of twice, could improve form conversion rates by 56%.
  21. The most expensive search keyword in the UK is “Play Live Blackjack”. One ad click on that results page could cost the advertiser £148.51.
  22. In September, the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority signed “the cheapest contract for electricity ever signed, anywhere on planet earth, using any technology” using solar power.
  23. PornHub used 1,892 petabytes of bandwidth in 2015, equivalent to filling all the storage on all of the iPhones sold in 2015 with porn.
  24. Lyft recruits, trains, and manages new drivers almost entirely via text messages from disposable Twilio VOIP phone numbers.
  25. El Paquete is the underground Cuban internet; a 1TB hard disk filled with US music, films, TV shows, magazines, and smartphone apps, passed around by street dealers. You can copy what you like for $8 a week. “My friends assure me, El Paquete and chill is definitely a thing.”
  26. Twitter has enough money in the bank to run for 412 years with current losses.
  27. Didi Chuxing, the Chinese ride-hailing service, installed touchscreen booths all around Shanghai so that people (especially the elderly) could still hail a car without having a smartphone.
  28. Tuareg guitar players really like Dire Straits.
  29. Single escalators have a higher capacity than double escalators, because passengers don’t dither trying to work out which escalator to take.”
  30. Iranian ecommerce entrepreneur Nazanin Daneshvar found that business partners didn’t take her seriously when she went to meetings wearing her hijab. So she hired her Dad, a power-station manager who knows nothing about the internet. He’d turn up, introduce himself as her manager, remain silent for the rest of the meeting while she did the deals, then sign the contract at the end. After 18 months, her company Takhfifan had over two million users across Iran, and Dad was finally able to ‘retire.’
  31. How farmers in Myanmar use the internet: “Facebook is most popular? Yes. Everyone wants? Everyone. Do people have email addresses? No. He makes the email addresses. Has a stack of pre-made Facebook accounts at the ready. He pre-installs the app and pre-loads friends. Farmers don’t use their real names. ‘I used my son’s name,’ Farmer fourteen told us. Why? ‘Because it’s a good name!’ he said smiling and patting his 1-year-old son on the head.”
  32. Most iPhone-case manufacturers don’t get advance notice from Apple about new designs; they rely on rumours. Case-maker Hard Candy went out of business after producing 50,000 custom-moulded cases for a leaked iPhone design that never appeared.
  33. When they launched, both Mastercard and Visa were not-for-profit membership organizations.
  34. Projects at the ‘Stupid shit that no one needs and terrible ideas’ hackathon in February included a browser plugin that hides content but shows ads, a 3D cheese printer, and a Dark Web wedding list service.
  35. The Edit has sold 50,000 vinyl records though an SMS chatbot.
  36. Those beautiful tree-covered skyscrapers probably won’t look as good in real life as they do in the renders.
  37. There is a 2,150-member Facebook group called “WE WANT TESCO IN PORTREE, ISLE OF SKYE.”
  38. To reduce PTSD in drone pilots, military psychologists have considered developing a Siri-like app for the pilots. The pilots would “let crews shunt off the blame for whatever happens. Siri, have those people killed.”
  39. Women launch more than half of all new internet companies in China.
  40. A Swiss perfume company worked with the Gates Foundation to create an artificial scent that smells exactly like a pit latrine.
  41. Studying a $50 smartphone that sends text messages to China every 72 hours, experts said: “It is not clear whether this represents secretive data mining for advertising purposes or a Chinese government effort to collect intelligence.”
  42. Japan Airlines serves KFC to economy-class travellers during the Christmas season. The in-flight KFC has 15% more salt to compensate for the lower pressure and humidity.
  43. At least one Silicon Valley company employs a receptionist who lives in New Delhi and appears in their offices via telepresence robot.
  44. The cure for scurvy (citrus fruit) was discovered and proved in 1601 by Captain James Lancaster. The innovation wasn’t adopted across the British Navy and Merchant Navy until 264 years later, in 1865.
  45. Chinese live-streaming services have banned “erotic banana eating.”
  46. A Dutch bike manufacturer reduced shipping damage by 70–80% by printing a flatscreen TV on their boxes.
  47. A town in New York State plans to spend $167,000 a year hiring Ubers for commuters, to avoid spending $15m building them a new car park at the station.
  48. Intervision, the 1970s Soviet answer to the Eurovision Song Contest, was judged by electricity-grid voting: “Those watching at home had to turn their lights on when they liked a song and off when they didn’t, with data from the electricity network then being used to allocate points.”
  49. In rural China, farmers sometimes steal natural gas in huge plastic bags. A bag of natural gas is enough fuel for up to one week.
  50. iPhone maker Foxconn has replaced more than half its workforce with robots since the iPhone 6 was launched.
  51. Instead of batteries, the ARES project in Nevada uses a network of train tracks, a hillside, and electric trains loaded with rocks to store wind and solar power. When there is a surplus of energy, the trains drive up the tracks. When output falls, the cars roll back down the hill, their electric motors acting as generators.
  52. The Earth has 7.6 billion mobile accounts for 7.3 billion people.