Average Movie Superhero

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With the recent spate of superhero movies, it is easy to forget that not every movie has a superhero in it. Even the superhero films aren’t always about someone on steroids (Captain America) or weather presenters (Thor) but are instead about your everyday billionaire playboy (Batman, Ironman, Arrow). So it is easy to forget that feats of superhuman strength are not meant to be the norm in films.

Think about the scenes where the everyday hero is clutching the edge of a building by his fingertips – and I’m sure someday I’ll be able to write their instead of his. Valiantly they hold on to the ledge with one hand whilst the love interest or bad guy is dangling from their other hand. Of course, the hero never loses his grip on the ledge, but the bad guy may slip from his grasp.

We accept that scene as plausible because we have been brainwashed into thinking that the average person can hold their own bodyweight with a single hand for extended periods. Double their bodyweight? They can hold that for the length of a dramatic moment – a period of time that is impossible to measure in real time since dramatic speeches and slow motion really mess with reality.

The problem is that outside of gymnasts, rock climbers, or people who crush rocks with their bare hands for a living, the Average Joe wouldn’t even be able to hold their own weight with a single hand for more than a few seconds. Good luck having any unbroken fingers if they caught themselves from a fall.

Elite grip strength can be measured a few ways, but the Captains of Crush grippers are one easy way to distinguish strong hands. The #1 requires 64kg (140lbs) of force to close, while the #3 gripper takes 127kg (280lbs) and is regarded as world class grip strength. Just for shits and giggles they made a #4 gripper that requires 166kg (365lb) of force to close and has been officially closed by 5 people. Ever.

So let’s just assume that our generic action movie has an everyday hero who weighs a buff 80kg and his falling love interest is a sexy 55kg – because stereotypes. That’s 135kg hanging from the hero’s fingertips, a weight that even a really strong person wouldn’t have the grip strength to support. Two normal sized adults are not going to be hanging onto that ledge for any length of time.

Which brings us to the next amazing feat of strength in this scenario: lifting that falling love interest back to safety. For a strong person, lifting their 55kg love interest should be easy. Patrick Swayze managed it in Road House. A buff 80kg hero could probably clean and jerk a dumbbell weighing that much…. assuming they work out, have some chalk on their hands, were able to get some leg drive happening, had decent technique, and that the dumbbell wasn’t particularly unwieldy. But most falling love interests are a tad unwieldy, not designed for easy lifting – no obvious knurled handles – and there isn’t a lot of leg drive happening when you’re dangling from the side of a building by your fingertips. Yet without fail, the hero manages to get them both to safety. Well, unless it is one of those tragic character defining moments, in which case the hero will be in the same situation later and will find the determination to succeed the second time. Sucks to be the first love interest in that scenario.

Interesting to think about just how many amazing feats of strength are passed off as normal in movies.

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Book Review: Edenverse by Matt Hawkins

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Edenverse: Think Tank, Postal, The Tithe, Eden’s Fall, Samaritan by Matt Hawkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Smart people take on the government. Because they should.

Back in 2012, I stumbled upon the first installment of Think Tank from indie comic publisher Top Cow. This was back when online stores selling e-comics were still not completely up with technology. I bought Issue #1 and then tried to read it. It wouldn’t download to my comic reading app. I tried to send it to my iPad. It didn’t like the strange format. I tried reading it in the store’s very own comic app. It suggested my iPad and computer were too new.

I won’t go into the details of exactly how I read that first issue (hint: comic files are just a bunch of pictures if you can slice them open), but even with all of the frustration of this first purchase I still enjoyed the story.

Dr. David Loren is many things: child prodigy, inventor, genius, slacker… mass murderer. When a military think tank’s smartest scientist decides he can no longer stomach creating weapons of destruction, will he be able to think his way out of his dilemma or find himself subject to the machinations of smaller men?

So started a five-year avid following of one of the more interesting techno-thriller series I’ve come across. Unfortunately, I switched from buying individual issues to the collected volumes, which were entirely more reliable in those early years of e-comics. I say unfortunately because as a result, I didn’t realise that Think Tank was part of an expanded universe – something the last few pages of regular issues highlights with previews.

Now I’m caught up. In particular, The Tithe and Samaritan are excellent additions to the Think Tank universe (Edenverse, named after the town in the Postal series). Matt Hawkins and illustrator Rahsan Ekedal have pulled together a collection of political machinations, high-tech possibilities, real-world issues, and social commentary for a brilliant collection of comics. Seriously, they have references for the topics, tech, and background at the end of each book, something that tickles my inner scientist with delight.

I highly recommend these series to comic fans, especially those who like techno-thrillers or crime-thrillers.

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Book review: How to Build a Universe by Brian Cox and Robin Ince

How to Build a Universe: An Infinite Monkey Cage AdventureHow to Build a Universe: An Infinite Monkey Cage Adventure by Brian Cox

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m going to bake some chocolate muffins from scratch, so this book should be useful.

Professor Brian Cox, Robin Ince, and Alexandra ‘Sasha’ Feachem are the team behind the popular The Infinite Monkey Cage, a BBC science show that pairs scientists and comedians for laughs and education. From 2009 they have produced +100 shows covering all sorts of topics. This book encapsulates some highlights and essays around their favourite topics and common science communication issues* they have covered in that time.

From the opening forewards to the covering of Schrodinger’s Strawberry I was heartily entertained. As a science nerd and fan of comedy, this book seems to have been written specifically for me. It actually left me feeling a bit annoyed that I haven’t, as yet, listened to The Infinite Monkey Cage show, despite having been aware of it for quite some time. So I guess I’ll be rectifying that soon.

What I like most about this approach to science is that it doesn’t seek to sex up science (or dumb down, depending upon the preferred flavour of marketing), but instead make it accessible and entertaining. There is a line between those two that too often those in the media can’t tell the difference between. Science is interesting, but it is complicated, it is often dry, and communicating scientific knowledge as done here is hard to do.

* Yes, I do mean how people aren’t willing to honestly engage with science, either through pseudoscience co-opting, or denial of evidence, or wanting certainty instead of the probability that science offers.

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A Book a Day: Six health benefits of reading

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Penguin Australia recently published an article suggesting reading was awesome for your health. Previously I have posted science-backed articles on the benefits of reading (1, 2), so more science telling us that readers are awesome never goes astray. Although, as much as I love some good old confirmation bias, I can’t just share that article without some commentary from the further reading. I mean, the article title is a play on An apple a day keeps the doctor away… that can’t pass without some mockery.

Reading can provide hours of entertainment and pleasure, impart knowledge, expand vocabulary and give insight into unknown experiences. Additionally, research has shown that it has a variety of physical, mental and emotional health benefits. If you need another excuse to pick up a book, here are six ways reading can benefit your health.

And if those six reasons don’t encourage you to pick up a book, then think of them as six ways you’ll be superior to other people.

Improve brain function

Neuroscientists at Emory University in America conducted a study and discovered that reading a novel can improve brain function on a variety of levels. The study showed that when we read and imagine the settings, sounds, smells and tastes described on the page, the areas within the brain that process these experiences in real life are activated, creating new neural pathways.So next time you’re indulging in an armchair adventure with a great book, you could technically claim you’re working out – your brain, that is.

This study was rather small, consisting of 21 university aged participants who had 19 days of baseline brain scans before 9 days of scans as they read Robert Harris’ Pompeii novel. Warning: they had no null group in this study, only the baseline comparison, so any conclusions drawn should be done next to a salt shaker. It does, however, draw similar conclusions to previous research I’ve discussed.

Obviously, stimulating the brain by engaging with a story is going to light up parts of the brain, but there is the implication that using our brains in this way will strengthen pathways. Calling it a workout for the brain is probably a stretch because it isn’t like our brain sits around doing nothing the rest of the day. But for me, the more interesting thing is the shared response among participants. It proves Steven King’s adage true about writing being a form of telepathy.

The big unanswered questions here are how does this compare to any other shared activity, and how does it compare to other similar activities. I’d bet crypto money – always best to keep bets symbolic – that any other activities would see similar responses.

Increase longevity and brain health in old age

Researchers at Yale University School of Public Health found that, ‘reading books tends to involve two cognitive processes that could create a survival advantage.’ According to their results ‘a 20% reduction in mortality was observed for those who read books, compared to those who did not read books.’And the longer you live, the more time you have to get through your to-be-read pile.

This study nags at my skeptic-sense. Nothing immediately jumps out and screams “This study is nonsense, don’t believe it!” but I can’t help but feel like it is. They sampled 3,635 people in the USA and compared readers to non-readers for longevity. Don’t worry, they factored in stuff like age, sex, race, education, comorbidities, self-rated health, wealth, marital status, and depression. But I’m still left with the nagging sound of my statistics lecturer telling the class that correlation doesn’t equal causation. See this example about storks and babies!

My suspicion is that there is something unmeasured that is confounded with reading that is the actual causal factor. This factor is probably also available from other activities, thus other activities will also increase your lifespan. Just my suspicion. Happy to be proven wrong.

Reduce tension levels

A 2009 study by the University of Sussex found that reading for just six minutes can reduce tension levels by up to 68 per cent.3 Researchers studied a group of volunteers – raising their tension levels and heart rate through a range of tests and exercises – before they were then tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation. Reading was the most effective method according to cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis. The volunteers only needed to read silently for six minutes to ease tension in the muscles and slow down their heart rate. If ongoing stress is an issue take a look at these simple stress management tips.

This claim is hard to pin down. It’s not like other studies haven’t shown reading (and yoga, humour, cognitive, behavioural, and mindfulness) have impacts upon stress levels. But unlike the linked studies, Lewis’ study hasn’t been published. The source in the Canadian National Reading Campaign links to The Reading Agency in the UK which cites an article in The Telegraph. Now, I suspect that this was probably one of those studies done for a report that no one has read because the only publicly available material on it is the press release. But it could also be rubbish research that didn’t get published because of claims like 300% and 700% better than other activities sound like made-up numbers.*

Increase emotional intelligence & empathy

Numerous studies have shown that reading books can promote social perception and emotional intelligence.2 Studies have also found that when a person is reading fiction, they showed greater ability to empathize. Similar to the visualization of muscle memory in sports, reading fiction helps the reader use their imagination to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.For books that’ll test your empathy, push your moral boundaries and ask ‘what would you do?’, take a look at this collection.

I don’t know why they referenced the same two studies again as they didn’t look directly at the issue of emotional intelligence and empathy. I’ve seen better studies, such as the one I mentioned in my piece on Literary Fiction In Crisis, and this one that literary people like to wave around because they can’t afford a Ferrari. So while this appears to be true enough, it is worth understanding why (read this one and see how lots of books have differing levels of literary merit).

Improve sleep

While some scientists believe reading before bed can inhibit sleep due to heightened brain activity, researchers at Mayo Clinic recommend reading as part of a relaxing bedtime ritual that can help promote sound sleep.4 This, coupled with the tension-relieving benefits of reading, can vastly improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep. You may want to stay away from page-turning crime and thriller novels though – you could be up all night…

Clearly these people don’t read thrillers. Am I right people? Huh?

Anyway, it is worth reading what the Mayo Clinic actually said:

Prevention
Good sleep habits can help prevent insomnia and promote sound sleep:
Create a relaxing bedtime ritual, such as taking a warm bath, reading or listening to soft music.

That’s right, it wasn’t that reading helped you sleep, it was that it could be part of a relaxing bedtime ritual. Could. They didn’t recommend it so much as used it as an example of a relaxing activity that wasn’t playing on the computer or watching TV (i.e. screen based). So this is overstating things a bit.

Improve overall wellbeing

Researchers at Italy’s University of Turin published an analysis of ten studies of bibliotherapy: the use of books as therapy in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders. Their findings showed that participants in six of the studies saw significant improvements in their overall wellbeing for up to three years after partaking in a course of reading therapy.5 With that in mind, here are some books to help you achieve mindfulness and find happiness in the everyday.

Worth reading the actual link on this one. In summarising they have made this sound like wellbeing benefits were being measured in most of the studies out to three years when only one of the ten studies did. This could just be me nitpicking, but it does overstate the results in my opinion.

As with many of my posts breaking down a sciency article, you can see that at best the claims are overstated, or as I’ve summed up previously I think you’ll find it is more complicated than that. And as much as I like reading – and I’m sure many of you reading this do as well – too often this sort of science isn’t actually helpful.

Sure, reading is awesome, but if you’re going to stick someone in an MRI to prove it, how about comparing it to other activities and including a nill treatment. That’s called good science! Readers don’t actually need some scientist to tell them their hobby is awesome (or maybe they do), and they especially don’t need overstated claims about that science in articles, it goes astray.

* Seriously, check out this “abstract” quote:

Abstract: Tested against other forms of relaxation, reading was proved 68% better at reducing stress levels than listening to music; 100% more effective than drinking a cup of tea, 300% better than going for a walk and 700% more than playing video games. Reading for as little as 6 minutes is sufficient to reduce stress levels by 60%, slowing heart beat, easing muscle tension and altering the state of mind. ‘Galaxy Commissioned Stress Research’, Mindlab International, Sussex University (2009)

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3868356/#s007title
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953616303689
3 Dr. David Lewis “Galaxy Stress Research,” Mindlab International, Sussex University (2009)
4 https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355167
5 https://academic.oup.com/eurpub/article/27/suppl_3/ckx186.244/4555858