'Restorying' your life as a hero's journey

    There are some people, perhaps most people, who do not expect setbacks and problems in life. They seem to think that it should all be smooth sailing, and that anything that interferes with this unarticulated plan is somehow annoying or unfair.

    Perhaps because I spent my teenage years reading philosophy (which I studied at university) and then my adult life reading Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, this isn’t my view. Instead, I’m well aware that everyone has to deal with setbacks and, in fact, they make you stronger and more focused.

    This article discusses the results of research based on interventions taking as its basis The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. He noticed that cultures around the world had foundational stories which were based on a similar structure. The researchers took this approach, updated it for modern life, and used the structure as an intervention to help individuals to tell better stories about their lives.

    What do Beowulf, Batman and Barbie all have in common? Ancient legends, comic book sagas and blockbuster movies alike share a storytelling blueprint called “the hero’s journey.” This timeless narrative structure, first described by mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1949, describes ancient epics, such as the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh, and modern favorites, including the Harry Potter, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings series. Many hero’s journey stories have become cultural touchstones that influence how people think about their world and themselves.

    Our research reveals that the hero’s journey is not just for legends and superheroes. In a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we show that people who frame their own life as a hero’s journey find more meaning in it. This insight led us to develop a “restorying” intervention to enrich individuals’ sense of meaning and well-being. When people start to see their own lives as heroic quests, we discovered, they also report less depression and can cope better with life’s challenges.


    To explore the connection between people’s life stories and the hero’s journey, we first had to simplify the storytelling arc from Campbell’s original formulation, which featured 17 steps. Some of the steps in the original set were very specific, such as undertaking a “magic flight” after completing a quest. Think of Dorothy, in the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, being carried by flying monkeys to the Emerald City after vanquishing the Wicked Witch of the West. Others are out of touch with contemporary culture, such as encountering “women as temptresses.” We abridged and condensed the 17 steps into seven elements that can be found both in legends and everyday life: a lead protagonist, a shift of circumstances, a quest, a challenge, allies, a personal transformation and a resulting legacy.

    For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo (the protagonist) leaves the Shire (a shift) to destroy the Ring (a quest). Sam and Gandalf (his allies) help him face Sauron’s forces (a challenge). He discovers unexpected inner strength (a transformation) and then returns home to help the friends he left behind (a legacy). In a parallel way in everyday life, a young woman (the protagonist) might move to Los Angeles (a shift), develop an idea for a new business (a quest), get support from her family and new friends (her allies), overcome self-doubt after initial failure (a challenge), grow into a confident and successful leader (a transformation) and then help her community (a legacy).


    Anyone can frame their life as a hero’s journey—and we suspect that people can also benefit from taking small steps toward a more heroic life. You can see yourself as a heroic protagonist, for example, by identifying your values and keeping them top of mind in daily life. You can lean into friendships and new experiences. You can set goals much like those of classic quests to stay motivated—and challenge yourself to improve your skills. You can also take stock of lessons learned and ways that you might leave a positive legacy for your community or loved ones.

    Source: To Lead a Meaningful Life, Become Your Own Hero | Scientific American

    The French Jesuit priest who surveyed Roman forts by air

    I’m not sure what’s more fascinating: the scale of the Roman army’s building (in this case, in Syria) or the French Jesuit priest who surveyed them by aeroplane.

    Either way, the history geek in me loves this.

    Back in the early days of aerial archaeology, a French Jesuit priest named Antoine Poidebard flew a biplane over the northern Fertile Crescent to conduct one of the first aerial surveys. He documented 116 ancient Roman forts spanning what is now western Syria to northwestern Iraq and concluded that they were constructed to secure the borders of the Roman Empire in that region.

    Now, anthropologists from Dartmouth have analyzed declassified spy satellite imagery dating from the Cold War, identifying 396 Roman forts, according to a recent paper published in the journal Antiquity. And they have come to a different conclusion about the site distribution: the forts were constructed along trade routes to ensure the safe passage of people and goods.


    The Dartmouth team analyzed CORONA and HEXAGON images covering some 300,000 square kilometers (115,831 square miles) in the northern Fertile Crescent, mapping 4,500 known archaeological sites and other features that seemed to be sites of interest. Some 10,000 previously undiscovered sites were added to their database. Poidebard’s forts have their own category in that database, based on their distinctive square shape and size, and the Dartmouth researchers found many more likely forts lurking in the spy satellite imagery.

    The results confirmed Poidebard’s 1934 finding of a line of forts running along the strata Dioceltiana and also revealed several new forts along that route. But the survey also showed many new, previously undetected Roman forts running west-southwest between the Euphrates Valley and western Syria, as well as connecting the Tigris and Khabur rivers. That seems more suggestive of the forts supporting the movement of troops, supplies, or trade goods across the Fertile Crescent—cultural exchange sites rather than barriers. The authors date most of the forts to between the second and sixth centuries CE, after which there was widespread abandonment of the sites, although a few remained occupied into the medieval period.

    Source: I spy with my Cold War satellite eye… nearly 400 Roman forts in the Middle East | Ars Technica

    More on the vagus nerve (and exercise)

    I mentioned a few weeks ago how researchers have been trying to electrically stimulate the vagus nerve, which is now thought to help treat everything from anxiety to depression.

    In this study, researchers from the University of Auckland found that the vagus nerve, plays a significant role during exercise. Contrary to the prevailing understanding that only the ‘fight or flight’ nervous system is active during exercise, this study shows that activity in the vagus nerve actually increases. This helps the heart pump blood more effectively, supporting the body’s increased oxygen needs during exercise.

    Interestingly, especially for people I know who have heart failure, they also  identified that the vagus nerve releases a peptide which helps dilate coronary vessels. This allows more blood to flow through the heart.

    The vagus nerve, known for its role in 'resting and digesting,' has now been found to have an important role in exercise, helping the heart pump blood, which delivers oxygen around the body.

    Currently, exercise science holds that the ‘fight or flight’ (sympathetic) nervous system is active during exercise, helping the heart beat harder, and the ‘rest and digest’ (parasympathetic) nervous system is lowered or inactive.

    However, University of Auckland physiology Associate Professor Rohit Ramchandra says that this current understanding is based on indirect estimates and a number of assumptions their new study has proven to be wrong. The work is published in the journal Circulation Research.

    “Our study finds the activity in these ‘rest and digest’ vagal nerves actually increases during exercise,” Dr. Ramchandra says.


    There is a lot of interest in trying to ‘hack’ or improve vagal tone as a means to reduce anxiety. Investigating this was outside the scope of the current study. Dr. Ramchandra says we do know that the vagus mediates the slowing down of heart rate and if we have high vagal activity, then our hearts should beat slower.

    “Whether this is the same as relaxation, I am not sure, but we can say that regular exercise can improve vagal activity and has beneficial effects."

    Source: Vagus nerve active during exercise, research finds | Medical Xpress

    Research shows people in most countries are anti-capitalist

    I came across this via fellow Sunderland AFC supporter Andrew Curry’s Just Two Things newsletter. We also share similar political views, so I share his delight that this journal article from a right-wing thinktank does the opposite of what they were evidently setting out to achieve.

    The article presents findings from a global survey on attitudes towards capitalism, revealing that pro-capitalist views are rare and mostly found in six countries. Bizarrely, and seemingly clutching at straws, the research found anti-capitalist views often correlate with conspiracy thinking and negative attitudes towards the rich.

    You’re not paranoid if they’re out to get you, and it’s not a conspiracy if capitalism really does favour the 0.1%.


    Chart showing capitalist sentiment
    In only seven of 34 countries – Poland, the United States, the Czech Republic, Japan, Argentina, South Korea, and Sweden – does a positive attitude towards economic freedom clearly prevail. Including the word ‘capitalism’ reduces this to just six of 34 countries, namely Poland, the United States, the Czech Republic, Japan, Nigeria and South Korea. In most countries, anti-capitalist sentiment dominates.

    What is it exactly that bothers people about capitalism? If you look at the survey’s overall conclusions, it is – in this order – primarily the opinion that:

    • capitalism is dominated by the rich, who set the political agenda;
    • capitalism leads to growing inequality;
    • capitalism promotes selfishness and greed; and
    • capitalism leads to monopolies.

    Not surprisingly, anti-capitalism is most pronounced among those on the left of the political spectrum and the strongest pro-capitalists are to be found to the right of centre. But while in some countries the formula is ‘the more right-wing, the more supportive of capitalism’, there are more countries in which moderate right-wingers are somewhat more supportive of capitalism than those on the far right of the political spectrum.

    Source: Attitudes towards capitalism in 34 countries on five continents | Economic Affairs

    Maybe it makes sense to talk to plants after all

    Although I’ve alluded to talking to plants in the title for this post, the interesting thing here is that research shows they can sense vibrations made by insects like caterpillars. This allows the plants to prepare for an attack by producing defensive chemicals.

    Some research suggests that plants can even detect the sound of water, which could have implications for sewer systems. The findings open up possibilities for using sound-based interventions in agriculture, such as drones equipped with speakers to warn crops of impending pest attacks.

    Plants have been evolving alongside the insects that pollinate them and eat them for hundreds of millions of years. With that in mind, Heidi Appel, a botanist now at the University of Houston, and Reginald Cocroft, an entomologist at the University of Missouri, wondered if plants might be sensitive to the sounds made by the animals with which they most often interact. The researchers recorded the vibrations made by certain species of caterpillar as they chewed on leaves. These vibrations are not powerful enough to produce sound waves in the air. But they are able to travel across leaves and branches, and even to neighbouring plants if their foliage touches.

    The researchers then exposed Thale cress—the plant biologist’s version of the laboratory mouse—to the recorded vibrations while no caterpillars were actually present. Later, they put real caterpillars on the plants to see if exposure had led them to prepare for an insect attack. The results were striking. Leaves that had been exposed had significantly higher levels of defensive chemicals like glucosinolates and anthocyanins, making them much harder for the caterpillars to eat. Leaves on control plants that had not been exposed to vibrations showed no such response. Other sorts of vibration—caused by the wind, for instance, or other insects that do not eat leaves—had no effect.


    The research may have practical consequences, too. “Drones armed with speakers and the right audio files could warn crops to act when pests are detected but not yet widespread,” says Dr Cocroft. Unlike chemical pesticides, sound waves leave no toxic residue. With the help of weather forecasts, the system could even be used to prepare crops for cold snaps.


    Farmers monitor the health of their crops by eye. (Mosaic virus, for instance, is so named because of the mottled pattern produced on the leaves of suffering plants.) That can be hard to do properly over an entire field. But if plants are broadcasting auditory indicators of distress, then wiring a field with microphones might help farmers keep an ear out for trouble.

    Source: Plants don’t have ears. But they can still detect sound | The Economist

    Poverty is expensive. Cash helps homeless people.

    Real-world studies such as this are important for busting myths about homeless people spending money recklessly compared to the rest of us.

    The widely held stereotype that people experiencing homelessness would be more likely to spend extra cash on drugs, alcohol and “temptation goods” has been upended by a study that found a majority used a $7,500 payment mostly on rent, food, housing, transit and clothes.

    The biases punctured by the study highlight the difficulties in developing policies to reduce homelessness, say the Canadian researchers behind it. They said the unconditional cash appeared to reduce homelessness, giving added weight to calls for a guaranteed basic income that would help adults cover essential living expenses.


    They found the cash recipients each spent an average of 99 fewer days homeless than the control group, increased their savings more and also “cost” society less by spending less time in shelters.


    Researchers ensured the cash was in a lump sum “to enable maximum purchasing freedom and choice” as opposed to small, consistent transfers.

    Source: Canada study debunks stereotypes of homeless people’s spending habits | The Guardian

    Actions speak louder than words

    This article popped up on my feeds a couple of weeks ago and I recognised the organisation behind the website. Having listened to an excellent Art of Manliness podcast episode featuring Dr John Barry, I knew that ‘The Centre for Male Psychology’ is actually legit.

    What this article discusses I’ve found true in my own life. I am by temperament introspective, which means for many years I thought the answer to any form of melancholy came in thinking. But, actually, I’ve found the answer to be in action in doing things such as climbing mountains, running, and doing things with my hands.

    The two ways of regulating emotions have implications for the field of mental health, which relies predominately on talking therapy – in particular talking about feelings. Does this not suggest that there could be, and perhaps needs to be, more emphasis on discussing the therapeutic value of action? It may not be practical to conduct therapy while engaged in physical activity such as a gym workout or while out walking in the streets, but the therapeutic discussion can at least focus more on the “doing” aspects of a man’s life. For example a therapist might ask how did problem XYZ make a man act out, along with exploring which physical activities or responses might help him to modulate such emotions more optimally in future. Does riding a Jet Ski, or going for a jog, or building some wooden furniture make him feel better or worse? Does that difficult manoeuvre in the video game remind of difficulties in his relationship with his girlfriend? Does the same video game provide some optimism that if he can get past the difficult manoeuvre within the game then perhaps he can find a way around the impasse with his girlfriend? Activities like these provide a symbolic canvas on which men project, and then work through various scenarios of real life, with potential to shift affective resonances in the process.

    When a man talks about how he operated a lathe, did some welding, restored a bit of discarded and broken furniture, might he be sharing a strategy of how he successfully redirected suicidal feelings? Perhaps we should not be so quick to shut down these conversations with accusations of being work obsessed, effectively stymieing natural male expressions with injunctions to talk less about activities and to communicate more effusively with feelings words. For many men, activities are the preferred canvases on which they can process feelings and carve out some genuine psychological equilibrium.

    This is probably a reason why men talk so much about work, sports, building things, computer games, recreational activities – it may be their preferred way of communicating the ways they wrestle with psychological issues. Sadly, the therapeutic industry is quick to chastise men’s preference for intelligent actions, conflating them with pathological reflexes such as unconscious acts of aggression, dependence on drugs and booze, and other destructive versions of so-called “acting-out” as they are so often branded.

    Source: Men tend to regulate their emotions through actions rather than words | The Centre for Male Psychology

    Paying it forward

    It’s worth clicking through to the Axios summary of some recent research showing that people underestimate the impact of small acts of kindness.

    I notice this in my own life: when I’m driving, if another driver smiles and allows me to merge into the queue, I’m more likely to do it to others; if I check in on people and ask how they’re doing, they more likely to do it to me. And so on.

    Small and simple, kind gestures have immense, underestimated power.
    Source: The outsized power of small acts of kindness

    Against 'talkocracy'

    Research. Build. Test. Repeat.

    Not endless talking and pontification.

    Everywhere I look, I see the rise of talkocracy — others have called it the dictatorship of the articulate. Talkers standing in the way of builders; offering we ponder, analyze, investigate, research, dissect, agonize endlessly over plans before we lay a single brick.


    This endless pondering introduces years and years of unnecessary delays. But worse: it kills the will to build. There is nothing builders hate more than endless meetings with people who can’t even spell “CPU.”

    You know you’ve lost when they’ve internalized the conservative voices, which can now stop them without even having to try. It’s when your intern has a neat idea for something he could hack together in a few hours — but then thinks, what’s the point?

    Source: The Dictatorship of the Articulate | Florent Crivello

    Criticism vs praise

    Like most people, it would seem, I’m sensitive to criticism. Not just that, but even the absence of praise can be problematic. It’s something I’m working on, but this article pointing out that criticism being more connected to the person making the comments than the one receiving them, is helpful.

    Whether it's criticism calmly dispensed by a teacher at school, or a cruel comment hurled in the heat of an argument with a friend or lover, we tend to remember criticism far better than positive comments, due to a phenomenon called the negativity bias.


    While a focus on the darker side of the world around us may sound like a depressing prospect, it has helped humans overcome everything from natural disasters to plagues and wars by being better prepared to deal with them (although there is evidence that optimism can also help to protect us from the stress of extreme situations). The human brain evolved to protect our bodies and keep us alive, and has three warning systems to deal with new dangers. There’s the ancient basal ganglia system that controls our fight or flight response, the limbic system which triggers emotions in response to threats to help us understand dangers, and the more modern pre-frontal cortex, which enables us to think logically in the face of threats.


    In some cases, negative remarks from people we love can lead to long-lasting mental wounds and resentment that can cause relationships to break down. Researchers at the University of Kentucky in the US found relationships are seldom saved when partners ignore relationship problems to remain “passively loyal”. “It is not so much the good, constructive things that partners do or do not do for one another that determines whether a relationship works as it is the destructive things that they do or not do in reaction to problems,” they said.


    “We are all sensitive to negative comments in the sense that there are no ‘stronger’ personality traits. Considering the fact that everyone receives negative comments can help us deal with them … and could be a good strategy to protect our own mental health,” she adds. “Another useful strategy could be to consider that comments are more connected to the person who’s making them than the one who’s receiving them."

    Source: Why criticism lasts longer than praise | BBC Future

    Is our society structured in a way which encourages people to make less than the greatest contribution they could?

    Colin Percival is the founder of Tarsnap which is a somewhat-niche cryptographically-secure backup solution. In this post, he replies to a comment he saw that he’s potentially wasting his life on something less important than the world’s biggest problems.

    His point, I think, is that starting your own business is the only way these days of being able to do the kind of deep work which people like him find fulfilling. So I guess the question is whether there’s an even better way of structuring society to enable even greater contribution?

    First, to dispense with the philosophical argument: Yes, this is my life, and yes, I'm free to use — or waste — it however I please; but I don't think there's anything wrong with asking if this is how my time could be best spent. That applies doubly if the question is not merely about the choices I made but is rather a broader question: Is our society structured in a way which encourages people to make less than the greatest contribution they could?


    In many ways, starting my own company has given me the sort of freedom which academics aspire to. Sure, I have customers to assist, servers to manage (not that they need much management), and business accounting to do; but professors equally have classes to teach, students to supervise, and committees to attend. When it comes to research, I can follow my interests without regard to the whims of granting agencies and tenure and promotion committees: I can do work like scrypt, which is now widely known but languished in obscurity for several years after I published it; and equally I can do work like kivaloo, which has been essentially ignored for close to a decade, with no sign of that ever changing.


    Is there a hypothetical world where I would be an academic working on the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture right now? Sure. It’s probably a world where high-flying students are given, upon graduation, some sort of “mini-Genius Grant”. If I had been awarded a five-year $62,500/year grant with the sole condition of “do research”, I would almost certainly have persevered in academia and — despite working on the more interesting but longer-term questions — have had enough publications after those five years to obtain a continuing academic position. But that’s not how granting agencies work; they give out one or two year awards, with the understanding that those who are successful will apply for more funding later.

    Source: On the use of a life | Daemonic Dispatches

    Yes, parenting matters

    Parenting is the hardest job I have ever had. It never stops, and I seldom think I’m doing a good job at it.

    That’s why it can be comforting to see ‘scientific studies’ indicate that it doesn’t really matter how you parent, in the long-run. The trouble is, as this article shows, that’s not actually true.

    We can’t experimentally reassign children to different parents — we’re not monsters, and please don’t call to offer us your teenager — but sometimes real life does that anyway. Here’s an example: some Korean adoptees were assigned to American adopters by a queueing system which was essentially random. So there was no correlation between adoptees’ and parents’ genes. Yet, adoptees assigned to better educated families became significantly better educated themselves. Adopters made a difference in other ways too: for instance, mothers who drank were about 20% more likely to have an adoptive child who drank. This can’t be genetics. It must be something about the environment these parents provided. Other adoption studies reach similar conclusions.

    More evidence comes from the grim events of death and divorce. If your parent dies while you are very young, you end up less like that parent, in terms of education, than otherwise. Again, that can’t be genetics. And children of parents who divorce become more like the parent they stay with. In other words, when parents spend time with their children, their behaviours and values rub off.


    The bottom line is this: how much and what you say to your child from their first few days literally carves new paths in their brain. We know this from research on speech development. When mothers responded to their babies’ cues with the most basic vocalisations, they accelerated their children’s language development. So go ahead and babble along with your toddler.

    Source: No wait stop it matters how you raise your kids | Wyclif’s Dust

    The new digital divide  

    We’re already at the stage where most people in the developed world have a device that can access the internet in their pocket. Many families have multiple devices in their house that can access the internet. We’re getting to the stage where that’s starting to be the case in developing countries.

    So the new digital divide? How we use the internet. I think there’s a lot to unpack here, especially as we live in unequal societies dominated by hyper-capitalism. It would be easy to victim blame, but I know from experience that when I’m burned out, all I want to do is stare and scroll at my phone…

    People using devices

    In his seminar, Moro referred to the socio-economic divide based on how we use the internet as the second digital divide, in contrast to the original digital divide which was based on access to the internet.

    Getting online in the 1990s required a personal computer and an account with a service provider, and e-commerce transactions required a credit card and bank account. As our economy was becoming increasingly digital, major new inequalities were now arising because so many around the world could neither afford a PC or an internet account and had no bank relationship or credit card. The reach and connectivity we were all so excited about in this initial phase of the internet era was in reality not so inclusive. While the internet was truly empowering for those with the means to use it, it led to a growing digital divide both within countries and across the world. The internet was ushering a global digital revolution, but it was disconcerting to have a global digital revolution that left out the majority of the world’s population.

    This picture started to change in the 2000s. Continuing technology advances were now bringing the empowerment benefits of the digital revolution to a majority of the planet’s population. Mobile phones and wireless internet access went from a luxury to a necessity that most everyone could now afford, initially in advanced economies, and later in most of the rest of the world. We were transitioning from the connected economy of PCs, browsers and web servers to an increasingly hyperconnected digital economy of ubiquitous, powerful and inexpensive mobile devices, cloud-based apps, and broadband wireless networks.

    While the original internet access gap is now minimal in developed economies, Moro and his collaborators found that a digital usage gap has now emerged, representing the distinct uses of the internet by different socio-economic groups based primarily on their income and educational status.


    The study found quantitative evidence of a significant digital divide in internet usage between two socio-economic groups, each with different income and educational attainment. In principle, all individuals had access to the same internet. But, the study found that each group generally accessed its own distinct version of the internet, and their socio-economic behavior was thus influenced by the fairly different services and information that they were exposed to. By analyzing mobile traffic flows, the study identified the key services that each group accessed:

    • Higher income & education demographics - Information-seeking traffic predominates, e.g., news, mail, search; Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter are the dominant social media apps; games like Clash of Clans are the most widely used, …
    • Lower income & education demographics - Entertainment traffic predominates, e.g., video-streaming, gaming, adult services; Facebook and Snapchat are the dominant social media apps; games like Candy Crush are the most widely used, …
    “The digital usage gap is so profound between low- and high-income or low- or high-education areas that it can be used to clearly distinguish between them or even identify the relative composition of these groups in a given area,” wrote the authors. “High-income areas or those with higher education attainability show a more pronounced utilization of mobile devices to consume news, exchange e-mails, search for information or listen to music. At the same time, they display a reduced use of some social media platforms or video-streaming services.
    Source: The Digital Divide in How We Use the Internet | Irving Wladawsky-Berger

    Image source: Robin Worrall

    Testing a 4-day work week

    I already work what most people would call ‘part-time’, doing no more than 25 paid hours of work per week, on average. I’m glad that employers are experimenting with a shorter workweek (for the same pay) but inevitably one of the metrics will be ‘productivity’ which I think is a ridiculously difficult thing to actually measure…

    “After the pandemic, people want a work-life balance,” Joe Ryle, the campaign director for the 4 Day Week Campaign, said in an interview. “They want to be working less.”

    More than 3,300 workers in banks, marketing, health care, financial services, retail, hospitality and other industries in Britain are taking part in the pilot, the organizers said. Mr. Ryle said the data would be collected through interviews and staff surveys, and through the measures each company uses to assess its productivity.

    “We’ll be analyzing how employees respond to having an extra day off, in terms of stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use, travel and many other aspects of life,” Juliet Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College and the lead researcher on the project, said.

    Source: Britain Tests a 4-Day Workweek | The New York Times

    The triple-peak work day is a worrying trend

    When I first stepped into the world of consulting, I spent around 18 months working with a large organisation. The person I reported to in the organisation did all of his real work in the evenings, because his 9-5 day was completely full of meetings.

    Talking in meetings isn’t work. I’ve never thought so, and never will.

    Last week, Microsoft published a study that offers an eerie reflection of my working life. Traditionally, the researchers said, white-collar workers—or “knowledge workers,” in the modern parlance—have had two productivity peaks in their workday: just before lunch and just after lunch. But since the pandemic, a third and smaller bump of work has emerged in the late evening. Microsoft’s researchers refer to this phenomenon as the “triple peak day.”


    Several underlying phenomena are pushing up this third mountain of work. One is the flexibility of at-home work. For example, parents of young kids might interrupt their workday or cut it off early for school pickup, dinnertime, bedtime, and other child care. This leaves a rump of work that they finish up later. Other workers are night owls who get their second wind—or even their primary gust of creativity—just before bed.


    Something else is pushing work into our evenings: White-collar work has become a bonanza of meetings. In the first months of the pandemic, Microsoft saw online meetings soar as offices shut down. By the end of 2020, the number of meetings had doubled. In 2021, it just kept growing. This year it’s hit an all-time high.

    Source: The Rise of the 9 p.m. Work Hour | The Atlantic

    Some fairy tales may be 6,000 years old

    It’s fascinating to think that children’s stories may have been told and re-told across languages and cultures for millennia. It just goes to show the power of narrative structure!

    Fairy tales are transmitted through language, and the shoots and branches of the Indo-European language tree are well-defined, so the scientists could trace a tale's history back up the tree—and thus back in time. If both Slavic languages and Celtic languages had a version of Jack and the Beanstalk (and the analysis revealed they might), for example, chances are the story can be traced back to the "last common ancestor." That would be the Proto-Western-Indo-Europeans from whom both lineages split at least 6800 years ago. The approach mirrors how an evolutionary biologist might conclude that two species came from a common ancestor if their genes both contain the same mutation not found in other modern animals.


    Tehrani says that the successful fairy tales may persist because they’re “minimally counterintuitive narratives.” That means they all contain some cognitively dissonant elements—like fantastic creatures or magic—but are mostly easy to comprehend. Beauty and the Beast, for example, contains a man who has been magically transformed into a hideous creature, but it also tells a simple story about family, romance, and not judging people based on appearance. The fantasy makes these tales stand out, but the ordinary elements make them easy to understand and remember. This combination of strange, but not too strange, Tehrani says, may be the key to their persistence across millennia.

    Source: Some fairy tales may be 6000 years old | AAAS

    Peeking around corners with holographic cameras

    It's amazing to think that 10 years ago we thought we were only a few years away from fully autonomous vehicles. Even now, we're in the early stages of actually making them safe.

    Blind corners have long troubled drivers, but they might not pose such a hazard for much longer. Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a new holographic camera technology that can peer around corners by reconstructing scattered light waves, quickly enough to spot fast-moving objects like cars or pedestrians.

    When light strikes an object, it scatters, and some of that finds its way to our retinas, or the sensors of a camera, allowing the object to be seen. Of course, that means we can’t see objects behind other objects, or through scattering media like fog or skin. But there might be a way to use the scattering of light off multiple objects to see around corners.

    Position a mirror just right, and you can see objects around corners. Even without a mirror, that principle still holds true – it’s just that the secondary object scatters the light too much for us to reconstruct the target. But an emerging technology called non-line-of-sight (NLoS) imaging can do just that.

    NLoS systems work by beaming light out, which bounces off a surface, strikes an object and bounces back to the surface, then back to a sensor. Algorithms can then create an image of the object around a corner. As you might expect however, images reconstructed in this way can often be low resolution, or take too long to process.

    Source: Holographic camera reconstructs objects around corners in milliseconds | New Atlas

    95% of fish are 'dark fish'

    If scientists have indeed got this correct, it’s an incredible finding.

    Fish in the sea

    Prof Duarte led a seven-month circumnavigation of the globe in the Spanish research vessel Hesperides, with a team of scientists collecting echo-soundings of mesopelagic fish.

    He says most mesopelagic species tend to feed near the surface at night, and move to deeper layers in the daytime to avoid birds.

    They have large eyes to see in the dim light, and also enhanced pressure-sensitivity."

    They are able to detect nets from at least five metres and avoid them," he says."

    Because the fish are very skilled at avoiding nets, every previous attempt to quantify them in terms of biomass that fishing nets have delivered are very low estimates."

    So instead of different nets what we used were acoustics … sonar and echo sounders."

    Source: Ninety-five per cent of world’s fish hide in mesopelagic zone | Phys.org

    Fractional dosing of COVID vaccines may help more people get immunity faster

    The advice to date has, quite rightly, to get any COVID vaccine that’s available to you. For me, that’s meant a double dose of AstraZeneca, and I’m happy about that.

    But as the pandemic progresses, we need to be aware that some vaccines are more effective than others. This working paper, building on one published in Nature earlier this year, looks at how ‘fractional dosing’ of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines could reach more people more quickly.

    Needless to say, we shouldn’t be in the position where people in less developed countries are getting access to vaccines much more slowly than the rest of the world. But, pragmatically speaking, this may help.

    We supplement the key figure from Khoury et al.’s paper to show that fractional doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have neutralizing antibody levels (as measured in the early phase I and phase II trials) that look to be on par with those of many approved vaccines. Indeed, a one-half or one-quarter dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine is predicted to be more effective than the standard dose of some of the other vaccines like the AstraZeneca, J&J or Sinopharm vaccines, assuming the same relationship as in Khoury et al. holds. The point is not that these other vaccines aren’t good–they are great! The point is that by using fractional dosing we could rapidly and safely expand the number of effective doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.


    One more point worth mentioning. Dose stretching policies everywhere are especially beneficial for less-developed countries, many of which are at the back of the vaccine queue. If dose-stretching cuts the time to be vaccinated in half, for example, then that may mean cutting the time to be vaccinated from two months to one month in a developed country but cutting it from two years to one year in a country that is currently at the back of the queue.

    Source: A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca | Marginal REVOLUTION

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