Every week for the past year, I’ve curated the most fascinating stories every week in my weekly email Non-Obvious Insights Newsletter. This year the newsletter was honored in the prestigious Webby awards too. It’s always interesting for me which stories seem to resonate most with readers based on how many email responses I get, how frequently a story is shared on social media and how frequently the link to the full story is clicked. Based on this combination of quantitative and qualitative data, here is a partial list of some of the most popular stories of the year, based on what my readers shared (scroll down to read the full stories):
- The Surprising Forgotten Medieval Habit of “Two Sleeps”
- Does Science Need To Be Dumbed-Down To Make It Meaningful?
- Why Humans Learned To Laugh (and Naming the Uranus Mission)
- The Predictable Failure of Unlimited Vacation Policy
- The Backstory of the Bookshelf That Converts Into a Coffin
- Is It Ever Possible to Avoid Buying More Stuff For Your Stuff?
- The Science Is In. Wearing Your Shoes In the House Is Disgusting.
- Oslo’s Secret Future Library Holds Books To Be Published In 100 Years
- Why Do So Many Media Personalities Use Our Hate As A Popularity Test?
- Why I Just Became A Noble Citizen of the Micronation of Ladonia
Note – Some of the most popular links are to stories that have photo collections such as the winners for the World Press Photo collection to TIME magazine’s best photos of the year. Usually I share those stories without commentary (so they aren’t included on the list below), but they are regularly popular so I have linked to them above.
The Surprising Forgotten Medieval Habit of “Two Sleeps”
Nearly thirty years ago a historian named Roger Ekirch came across a curious phrase while researching a book on the history of night-time. The phrase, described in this BBC article as “a particularly tantalising detail of life in the 17th Century” was first sleep. It seems that most people at a certain point in human history routinely broke their nightly sleep into two phases. A first and a second sleep. And then at some point in the past 100 years, we forgot how to do this.
The benefit of two sleeps seems hard to believe. Isn’t a full night of uninterrupted sleep a scientifically proven necessity? Is it really better or did people just do it because they had to keep watch, or due to some other circumstance of medieval life that doesn’t exist anymore? Before you dismiss this as a relic of a time past, consider this … in 1992 a sleep scientist from the National Institute of Mental Health found that when subjects in an experiment were deprived of artificial light, their sleep patterns eventually reset to what he termed “biphasic sleep” as well – with two roughly equivalent periods of sleep interrupted by an hour or two of time awake.
It turns out biphasic sleep is common among some animals in nature as well – meaning it’s not a new or uniquely human concept. So after reading this, I’m starting to think that perhaps I’m sleeping wrong. And maybe you are too.
Does Science Need To Be Dumbed-Down To Make It Meaningful?
“Popular-level descriptions of research findings tend to abandon the language of science in favor of metaphors and analogies, which inadvertently limits the reader’s connection with the corroborating body of knowledge.”
Writers who explain research data in more approachable ways are necessary but have always inspired frustration from scientists who feel their work is oversimplified. Where should the line be drawn and is this “dumbing down” of science a good or bad thing?
That’s not a new question, but it does perhaps have new relevance in a time when people increasingly only read the headlines of a story and not even the simplified explanation of a concept. Some news platforms have even started publishing their full article with a button at the top for readers to get a “Quick Read” version of that same story. Publications like BusinessWeek offer bullet point summaries at the start of every story to satisfy the TLDR mindset of today’s news consumer.
So is it ideal to present sophisticated science through bite-sized analogies? Probably not. But it is almost certainly better than trying to condense every newsworthy development into the size of a swipeable headline … which is the sad reality toward which we seem to be headed.
Why Humans Learned To Laugh (and Naming the Uranus Mission)
Why did humans evolve laughter? A new study suggests that laughter is a tool nature may have provided us with to help us survive. As Italian researcher Carlo Valerio Bellieni writes:
“I was able to condense the process of laughter into three main steps: bewilderment, resolution and a potential all-clear signal … First, it needs a situation that seems odd and induces a sense of incongruity (bewilderment or panic). Second, the worry or stress the incongruous situation has provoked must be worked out and overcome (resolution). Third, the actual release of laughter acts as an all-clear siren to alert bystanders (relief) that they are safe.”
That’s maybe more analytical than you ever imagined getting about laughter but it turns out humans (and 65 species of animals) may have all developed laughter as a way to deal with high stress situations. I was thinking about this while reading the story about the questionable campaign to ask the public to name NASA’s new probe headed toward Uranus.
While the request didn’t come from the space agency itself, I imagine all extraterrestrial missions to be pretty high stress … so perhaps it’s easy to understand why anyone would invite a bit of comic relief to break the tension. If we’re lucky, NASA will see the research about laughter and really commit to humor by going with the most popular suggestion offered via Twitter … Operation Butt Plug.
The Predictable Failure of Unlimited Vacation Policy
Wall Street firms are changing policies in their notoriously cutthroat work environments to offer unlimited annual vacation days. The catch is, the policy only applies partners and managing directors … and does nothing to counter the work-at-all-hours culture that discourages these senior staff from taking any vacation days at all. How likely would you be to take advantage of a generous leave policy if you were risking your professional reputation by doing so?
I have lived and worked in places with a policy that demands people use their time off in order to come back to work recharged. The truth is, offering unlimited leave is far less meaningful than requiring people take the leave they are actually given. Now that would really be a revolution on Wall Street.
The Backstory of the Bookshelf That Converts Into a Coffin
A coffin is one of the most expensive items of furniture that people will buy, and often has the worst quality. This fact inspired designer William Warren to design a bookshelf that can be converted into a coffin. Though the idea of looking at a bookshelf every day that you’ll be buried in might seem morbid, he suggests there might be a very personal upside to his idea:
“The wood will color, the surfaces will mark and stain, and over the years and the furniture will become a part of you. We are all going to die at some point and there’s no need to ignore it or try to forget it. If you don’t think about it in advance, you’ll be buried or burnt in a chipboard box [and] your grieving family will pay £400 for this £40 piece of rubbish because nobody argues with an undertaker. Better to have something you’ve made, something solid and something that has lived with you in life and has the stains and scars to prove it.”
UPDATE – This was not the story I thought would resonate quite so much, but for some reason it inspired lots of emails to me about the idea–both complimentary and critical. I guess some stories resonate with both people who love it and those who don’t.
Is It Ever Possible to Avoid Buying More Stuff For Your Stuff?
Are you buying stuff for your stuff? That was the question that inspired this article from WIRED contributor Paul Ford all about the challenges of buying with more intention. The first problem, he writes, is that “certain kinds of stuff simply attracts more stuff.” Your cell phone needs a case and apps. Your home needs furniture.
The second issue that follows soon after is that “each thing, each unit of stuff, came with its own pet stuff—a stand, a foam cover, cords, a manual, a little drawstring case. The supply chain is fractal: Zoom in on your stuff and there’s more stuff, ad infinitum.”
Sadly, Ford’s journey through this thought experiment ends in a rather unsatisfying way: with him content to try and understand the supply chain behind all this stuff. What if we actually could find new ways to rethink our endless consumption of stuff? One way to do it is to intentionally choose products that make a conscious effort to offer less. Refillable items are one example. Another is package free products. And let’s not forget the most obvious solution: buy less stuff in the first place.
The Science Is In. Wearing Your Shoes In the House Is Disgusting.
If there is one sign that someone comes from an Asian family or has spent time living in Asia, it’s their custom of taking off their shoes upon entering someone’s home. It turns out this cultural habit has some solid science behind it too. Multiple research studies have found that wearing shoes inside the home can bring many toxins and bacteria into your living space. Health aside, the less obvious benefit of having guests remove their shoes is the signal it offers that you’re part of our family. Despite these arguments, there are still some die-hard shoe wearers who insist foot protection from dust or the errant Lego mean the shoes should stay on in the home. Those arguments seem forced or just plain lazy. Honestly, removing shoes doesn’t really seem like that much to ask.
Update – After publishing this short piece, I got several emails from readers reminding me that some people need to wear shoes in the home due to medical conditions. One wrote that “walking barefoot or in socks is excruciating because of my foot and ankle issues” and so he needs to wear orthotic shoes in the home too. The emails were a good reminder that sometimes there are perspectives on a story that I might not be thinking about.
Oslo’s Secret Future Library Holds Books To Be Published In 100 Years
Every year since 2014, the team at the Future Library commissions a different writer to provide a story that will be held in their secret “silent room” in a plated glass drawer for a century. Eventually, all the collected works will be published in 2114 using paper made from long-living local spruce trees that are being planted in the area around Oslo’s main city library.
The project was conceived by a Scottish artist named Katie Paterson who specializes in creating works of art that poetically explore humanity’s relationship with time. The most interesting part of this story isn’t the book itself. Instead, it’s the challenge this library poses to future generations to protect and care for something that is meant to outlive us all.
Why Do So Many Media Personalities Use Our Hate As A Popularity Test?
One thing that right and left wing media personalities have in common: they are both desperate to be hated. Attracting the hate of their ideological opposites has become a sad metric for success. If you’re not pissing someone off, you’re not doing your job. The same mentality has entered into the world of business and entrepreneurship. This ideal of hate-seeking is toxic to our culture, but effective because we are falling for the trick over and over. But who really benefits by keeping us angry all the time?
I am trying to leave the rage behind and focus on something more productive. In DC this past weekend during the protests, I saw someone wearing a button that said “if you aren’t angry, you’re not paying attention.” I am paying attention. But I’m trying not to stay angry.
Here’s another bumper sticker piece of advice worth considering: “don’t get mad, get even.” It’s true anger can inspire people to action. The problem is that for many, anger is only inspiring them to stay angry … which doesn’t help anyone. So the next time you watch or hear or read something that seems clearly designed to make you angry, stop for a moment and consider why. And then try to imagine something productive you can do about it.
Why I Just Became A Noble Citizen of the Micronation of Ladonia
The Constitution of Ladonia dictates that it can never be ruled by a King. Despite the legislative truth that I cannot aspire to become the leader, I still was intrigued enough to fill out a citizenship application to become a Ladonian. Confused? This week I was reading in The Guardian about the fascinating persistence of micronations – countries that are founded within other countries. The article tells the story of Atlantium (known as “the smallest country in Australia”) and many others.
The point of most of these micronations isn’t usually to make a political statement, as you might assume. Instead, as Queen Carolyn of Ladonia (pictured) says, “we’re poking fun at existing structures. If you take yourself too seriously, you start attracting negative attention from larger nations. No one wants separatists on their borders.” Atlantium founder George Cruickshank even describes his nation as a “sustained performance art project.”
So these micronationalists are largely a fun-loving, free thinking bunch who care most about bringing like minded people together in new forms of community. It’s an appealing idea, and I’m happy to report my application to become a noble of Ladonia is now approved. My contribution to the citizen’s library of Latin phrases and mottos was Non Patet (Non-Obvious!) and I just received my Certificate of Nobility. Henceforth you may call me Baron Bhargava.
BONUS: This Repackaging Solution Might Be The Best “Business Hack” Ever
Sometimes in the course of doing research I come across the story that is a bit older but still good enough to share. This week that story came from Dutch bike manufacturer VanMoof who came up with a very non-obvious solution to their major problem of damage to bikes that they were shipping from Europe to the US. Realizing that the handlers at shipping companies were not treating their bikes as fragile, they put a photo of flat screen TV on their box after realizing the box shape was about the same size. Their shipping damages went down by a stunning 70%-80%. The idea was so good, it’s been copied by other bike makers and a great example of how sometimes the best solution to a real business problem to understand what could actually change the behavior of the people causing the problem in the first place.
UPDATE – I just published this story a few weeks ago, but the response was so high that I had to include it in this roundup as well.
So those are the stories that stood out for all of my readers over the year. I’ll be taking a break for the holidays but I’ll be back to writing the email newsletter on January 5th, 2023 with the first edition of next year featuring the most interesting innovations from CES reporting live from Las Vegas.