Jose Drost-Lopez

Archive for the ‘Reality Check’ Category

George Clooney needs jet lag and a fever

In Movies, Reality Check on January 10, 2012 at 7:15 pm

In Up in the Air (2009), an Oscars-nominated dramedy, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who flies constantly for his job, laying people off. One of the pivotal early character-building scenes shows Clooney going to an airport and treating it like home. In fact the director Jason Reitman cared about this scene enough to break it down with the New York Times.

It is cinematically well-composed, but the message it sends is strange. Bingham (Clooney) is shown to feel most comfortable and at home in airports, and later we find him smiling at various nameless hotels. What this depiction hides are the real demands of constant travel, such as jet lag and getting sick. If I met this man I’d be quick to ask about the weary side effects of his travels. Similarly I’d ask James Bond how many STDs he has, but that’s a different story. With Clooney’s character Reitman shows us a a simplistic caricature noticeably missing yawns, bags under the eyes or coughs. That demands an exceptional explanation, but none is provided.

I don’t expect Reitman to call back with an answer. Film, especially Hollywood film, is not about creating a full and credible psychological profile of the characters. Nonetheless, don’t let Up in the Air leave your head up in the clouds, where air travel is always fun and easy.

Simplifying English Spelling? Not So Simple.

In Reality Check on February 26, 2011 at 12:30 am

Wouldn’t it be great if every letter in English spelling only made one sound? Why can’t our language be more “phonetic” like Spanish? Well it could be, but in some respects it is “too late,” and in any case our way has its perks.

To briefly make my point, here are a few practical obstacles for creating a 1:1 sound:letter script for English.

(1) Transparency of word roots is valuable. “Insane” and “insanity” have such related meanings that spelling them differently to account for pronunciation would be confusing. As another example, the silent /n/ at the end of “column, autumn, condemn” is worth keeping since it gives rise to “columnist, autumnal, condemnation.”

(2) Different spellings are helpful for reading homophones, which are common in English (though not as common as in Chinese, which needs much more meaning-specific morphemes). E.g., “eye” vs “I,” “you” vs “ewe,” “two” vs “too” vs “to.”

(3) Spelling should not reflect nuances of pronunciation that most people do not notice, such as coarticulation, assimilation, resyllabification, which change the pronunciation of words depending on spoken context. “Cap driver” would be confusing even though we only imagine pronouncing the “b” sound most of the time. Same goes for “apsurd” and for foreign accents (“do you vant some beer?”).

These ideas aren’t mine–I got them mostly from Stanislas Dehaene’s “Reading in the Brain.” It’s a cool book!

More brain connections than stars in the universe? No, not even close.

In Reality Check on September 10, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Our observable universe is huge. Make that really huge. So if you have ever read that our brain connections outnumber the stars in the universe (perhaps here or from this book), I hope you frowned in skepticism.

Cosmic Microwave Background map of the universe

Here are the real numbers:

Neurons (rough overestimate for adults): 10^11, or 100 billion

Synapses (based on 1000 per neuron estimate): 10^14, or 100 trillion

Stars (estimate for observable universe): 7 x 10^22; that’s 70 sextillion!

For every brain synapse (“connection”) we have, there are (at least) 700 million (700,000,000) stars somewhere out there. In other words, the number of stars per human synapse is about the number of people in Europe. Only if we count up the synapses of all the people alive (10^21) do we get a number comparable to the star count.

How could confusion arise on such a whopping difference? The mistake is clear in my first link above (“Cool Brain Facts”). The site assumes that most stars are in our galaxy, the Milky Way. That’s monumentally incorrect–our galaxy is unexceptional (star-wise or otherwise) among the approximately 100 billion galaxies within detectable range. On the bright side, this fact suggests an easy correction for our myth:

The number of synapses in the human brain is larger than the number of galaxies in the observable universe. Also, there are more synapses in an average human brain than there are stars in our Milky Way galaxy.

The core of the Milky Way. Our solar system is a microscopic spec of dust in there.

Let me clarify that the brain is a magnificent organ no matter how you spin the numbers. As early as two millenniums ago Hippocrates realized its importance: “from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joy, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs, and tears.” But no matter the intricacy of our brains, let’s not belittle the majestic scale of the cosmos.