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The definitive host

The definitive host

de·fin·i·tive host (duh-fin'eh-tiv) n. 1) An organism where a parasite undergoes the adult and sexual stages of its reproductive cycle 2) Someone you go to for interesting stories and/or facts, and puts on one hell of a dinner party 3) This blog, devoted to science and other geeky subjects

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The science of Smaug the Terrible

Earlier this year, when the television show Game of Thrones came back on air, I wrote a blog post about how (if possible) dragons could exist. But, Game of Thrones is not the only medium where dragons dwell.

I am, of course, talking about the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug (pronounced sm-OWW-gh) which features a gigantic fire-drake with an ego to match who is known by many names: Smaug the Golden, Smaug the Impenetrable, Smaug the Magnificent, Smaug the Tremendous, Smaug the Terrible, Smaug the Stupendous, The Dragon Dread, Trāgu, Lord Smaug.

But could dragons exist? Read on and find out!

In fantasy, dragons are practically omnipresent - good guys train them, bad guys abuse their power, they horde gold, kidnap princesses, murder thousands of people ... or are simply a myth in the world's history.

But, that is in a fantasy world – what about on Earth (or an Earth-like planet)? Could dragons exist?

According to Professor John R. Hutchinson of The Royal Veterinary College in London, UK, the discussion all comes down to size and gravity. When a land animal increases in mass, gravity quickly dominates all its activities because of the various pressures it exerts on the animal’s body (but an animal in water is a very different story, just compare an elephant - the largest animal on land - with a blue whale, the largest animal in the ocean).

Now imagine an animal the size of a dragon – one long-dead in Game of Thrones was described as possessing jaws so big that it could swallow a mammoth whole and eclipse whole towns with its shadow. For much an animal to exist, it would need large bones to support its weight and muscles to move it, not to mention huge stores of energy to move and support such a large creature.

“Inevitably, the range of extreme activities that animals can do decreases as they get larger,” says Hutchinson. “So elephants don’t jump or gallop, whereas mice do; and large flying birds don’t whiz around like hummingbirds.”

One of the most identifying characteristics of a dragon is its ability to fly, but the problem of size rears its ugly head once again. As flying animals get bigger, their wing size needs to increase just as much, if not more.

“[A dragon] would need immense wings to support its weight,” said Hutchinson. “A lot of weight is wasted in that heavy tail and hind legs as well as the bulky head, too — those don’t help the dragon fly well at all. So at best such a smallish dragon would be a clumsy flier, and would have a hard time taking off.”

“If we move to a 500, let alone a 5,000 kilogram dragon, flight basically becomes out of the question in Earth’s gravity. So, one needs to invoke magic to explain a flying dragon.”

Therefore, in a world without magic, it looks like a dragon of any size would not be able to grow to such mythic proportions as described in various fantasy stories. But, what about if dragons were built like birds?

The largest bird found today is the California condor, with an average weight of 10 kilograms, a length of just over 4 feet and a wingspan of over 10 feet having been recorded (which is two and a half times its length!).

Conservatively, let us say that a dragon weighs 50 kg, and if it follows the same construction and weight distribution as a condor, than it would clock in at just over 20 feet in length and a wingspan over 50 feet.

Large? Sure. But theoretically possible.

But bigger dragons, like those described in Game of Thrones would be more like 500 kg, which would make their length 200 feet (or about two-thirds of a football field) with a wingspan of 500 feet (or the height of a 50-storey building!)

Suffice to say, even if it could exist, the physics alone would not allow such an animal to move, much less have enough energy to fly.

While dragons would not be able to fly or reach such massive size described across the globe, what about the other impressive characteristic of a dragon – its ability to spew fire?

According to Hutchinson, dragon fans will be disappointed once again.

While some animals, such as bombardier beetles, can excrete a hazardous and incendiary-type of fluid from their bodies on rare occasions for defense, fire-breathing it is not.

“Intensely hot flame takes massive amounts of energy to produce and to be hot enough to damage flesh, it would thus cook the dragon from the inside out anyway,” he adds. “I don’t see a realistic way that a very large animal could breathe some sort of fire-like substance. Tiny animals might get away with something like that on a small scale with chemical cocktails, but a huge animal would neither be able to fuel the energy needed to breathe fire nor avoid scorching itself. Again, magic (or a good imagination) is the only option to allow for such a creature.”

With fire-breathing going up in a puff of smoke along with monstrous size and ability to fly, what are we left with to satiate our need for dragons?


Komodo dragons and Pterosaurs.

Komodo dragons are the largest living reptile on the planet, growing up to 10 feet and 150 kilograms, able to run up to 20 kilometres per hour and dive up to 15 feet. While not able to breathe fire, Komodo dragons do have a bad bite, filled with dangerous bacteria and venom – which they use to incapacitate and even kill prey with a single bite.

Pterosaurs, on the other hand, were flying dinosaurs existing millions of years ago. Hutchinson says that they could weigh 50 to 250 kilograms, have wingspans up to 36 feet and when standing, could be up to 18 feet (thanks to Brian Switek, paleontological guru for help with those numbers). Sadly, as with all dinosaurs, they have long since gone from this world.

“We have had large sort-of-dragon-like animals in the past in the form of pterosaurs or even sort-of-giant eagles and vultures, but a real dragon in the sense of classic or modern fantasy just ain’t going to ever happen.”

Sadly, science tells us that dragons are merely a fantasy, but it doesn’t stop millions of people loving them. Just because dragons are an impossible flight of fancy on Earth, in the lands of Westeros and Middle Earth, anything is possible.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

NaNoWriMo - The Return

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for short), and I've participated in it for the past number of years, but with a slight twist.

The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to force you to write a 50,000 word novel in just four short weeks.

But I've never done that. I always used NaNoWriMo to further the creation of my own novel, "The Black."

I came up with the idea for the novel when I was in journalism school, and I started writing it on this very blog. It was fun, interesting and I knew exactly where I was going. Until about chapter two or three, where the book I ended up writing did not resemble the one that I had begun.

So, I decided to stop and spend some time thinking about exactly what I wanted my novel to be. I sat down and wrote an extremely complex timeline, then a plot summary, character descriptions, etc. My book was perfectly laid out in about ten pages. All that was left was to write it.

So, I basically took what I wrote previously as a guide, and started from scratch. Since then, I have been working on it on and off for years.

My problem is this - as a writer and journalist, I spend all day writing, editing, reading and researching for work. So, when I get home, doing the same thing for hours can often feel like a bit of a chore. Sometimes, the words would just flow and I would have no problem writing and writing for hours at a time. Other times, I'd struggle to complete just one- if that.

That is not to say that I do not enjoy writing, as I do. If I didn't, I wouldn't be a writer and a journalist.

So, I used NaNoWriMo to not necessarily start a new project (though I do have two other ideas for a novel and a short story that I'm keeping in my back pocket), but to force myself to continue writing "The Black."

And it worked, but I am nowhere even close to being done. At all.

But this month, I am going to try something different.

Instead of continuing to write "The Black," or even a new novel or story, I'm going to devote all that time to a new project I am developing. This project will require a lot of preparation, research and a whole host of other stuff.

But, I am extremely excited about it, and think it could incredible. And I have some amazing people that have offered their skills, expertise and extensive experience to help me out with this.

What is it?

Well, that will remain a secret for now, until it launches. But if you know me (or follow this blog), you'll have a pretty good idea what it is about ... *cough* animals *cough.*

Stay tuned!

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Screaming without a voice

This has been an interesting week, filled with fun, sun and revelations.

This was going to be a post about all the fun I had in Miami at Science Online Oceans last week. But it’s not.  It was going to be a post about my experiences with the science online community in Miami, which I count myself lucky to be a part of. But it’s not. It was going to include photos of what I did, including seeing alligators, herons and more. But it’s not.

As fun and exciting as that was, in light of recent developments, it doesn’t really seem all that important right now.

For those who are not aware, an important figure in the science online community, who acted as a mentor to many of us, has resigned his position in midst of statements from women whom he had sexually harassed.

This is how this horrible situation came to light:

On Monday, writer Monica Byrne added a note to her blog post from last year about an experience with sexual harassment. In that note, she identified the man as Bora Zivkovic, the editor of Scientific American’s blog network and a major force in the online science community (http://monicacatherine.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/this-happened/).

In her post, she describes that during a coffee meeting to discuss her pursuit of science journalism, Bora constantly veered the conversation into the area of sex and extra-marital affairs. Understandably, she was uncomfortable, but due to his influential position, she kept silent.

Afterward, Bora followed the coffee conversation with a Facebook message, where he said that it was great to meet her and, as for all the sex talk, he wrote, “why not.”

Following that, she communicated with him detailing her feelings and what he was doing wrong, which he eventually apologized for. “He said he’d been very busy recently, but that he was very sorry," she wrote.  "... He’d been in the midst of a “personal crisis” at the time, which was now “happily resolved.””

The online science community was already in the midst of another incident last weekend, also involving Bora, Scientific American, with the addition of the blogger Danielle Lee (http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/10/14/danielle_lee_called_an_urban_whore_how_scientific_american_bungled_the_racist.html). This incident is what inspired Monica to out Bora as the harasser in her post.

When this allegation against Bora came out, people in the community were shocked, appalled and very vocal about it. Others were more understanding, saying that one incident isn’t a trend, and that the man made a mistake.

Then, others started writing about similar experiences on Monica’s blog. Some dismissed them as simply getting on the bandwagon and trying to get attention, while others perked up their ears.

Maybe this is real, they said. Maybe this has happened before, but people were afraid. Maybe, just maybe, the man who we all revere in this community is not all he is cracked up to be.

But, Bora did post a note on his website when this news came out, acknowledging that this situation with Monica occurred (http://blog.coturnix.org/2013/10/15/this-happenned/). So they were no longer simply allegations, but were true.

In his post, he wrote, “It is not behavior that I have engaged in before or since. I hope to be known for my continued professional and appropriate support of science writers rather than for this singular, regrettable event for which I am deeply sorry.”

And people accepted this apology, and it seemed to have been dealt with internally at Scientific American a year ago when the incident occurred. But, the conversation didn’t stop.

The organizers for the ScienceOnline conference, which I have been a part of for years, issued a statement on Wednesday detailing the role of Bora going forward. He was an integral part of putting the conference together over the past several years, but due to his admission of guilt, he resigned from his position with them.

Kathleen Raven, a friend of mine from the Science Online conference, posted on her website (http://sci2morrow.com/2013/10/16/mixed-up/) her experiences with harassment. Though she does not name her harassers, her points that describe the harassment she'd dealt with for years stuck a chord in everyone.

Then, Hannah Walters, a friend I have known for years, and whom I profoundly respect and admire, wrote a post about her experience with Bora (https://medium.com/ladybits-on-medium/857e2f71059a). Her post, entitled “The Insidious Power of Not-Quite-Harassment,” deals with harassment from Bora that is made from an off-hand inappropriate joke, discussing sexual experiences and more. 

After these two posts were put online, the community could no longer deny that Bora had been sexually harassing women for years and that something had to be done. There was shock, anger and sadness rippling through our community. But most of all, there was support, respect and kindness for the women who came forward and brought these dark secrets that they have been carrying around to light.

Bora tweeted on October 16th: "No need to defend me. Kudos to and for having the courage to speak up. I was wrong. I am sorry. I am learning."

Then, on Friday, Kathleen, who had written a post detailing harassment throughout her life, wrote another post describing two particular experiences with harassment (https://medium.com/the-power-of-harassment/3e809dfadd77). In her post, which I highly encourage everyone to read, even though it is a difficult one, she goes into great detail of exchanges she had with Bora where he crossed the line repeatedly, made overt sexual comments, kissed her, propositioned her and more.

It was one of the only things in my life that I read and was so emotionally impacted by, that I was in stunned. And from my conversations with other people, I was not the only one to be shocked, disgusted and mortified that someone had to experience such harassment.

This caused many people to further question their interactions with Bora, indicated by the hashtag on Twitter #ripplesofdoubt on Twitter. And when it became sad and negative, people began tweeting with the hashtag #ripplesofhope to inspire.

Then, later on Friday, Scientific American released a statement saying that Bora had resigned from his position of Blog Editor for the magazine. You can read the statement here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/pressroom/pr/corporate-press-releases/2013/bora-zivkovic-resigns-from-scientific-american/

This is not over, and the conversation about preventing this behavior needs to continue. Not only in the online science community, but every community.

Hopefully, if we can take anything away from what has been revealed here about a man many people considered a colleague, mentor and friend, is that complacency is the enemy. Looking the other way and not speaking out are the wrong way to handle anything, especially harassment.

I am proud to be a member of the science online community, and have so many friends that I depend on, trust, respect and admire. But we must move forward, evolve, and make things better for the future.

I do not know how we can accomplish this, but I look forward to moving forward - together.

To everyone in this community: my friends, colleagues and those I have not yet had the pleasure to meet, I support you. We support you. Always.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Traditional (and not so traditional) traditions

As the sun sets on Yom Kippur, millions of Jews will prepare to break the fast on one of the holiest days in the entire Jewish calendar year.

Yom Kippur is known as the "day of repentance," where Jews fast from sundown to sundown in order to repent for their sins of the past year. It is a day of reflection, personal growth and the letting go of the petty gripes that most people hang on to.

As a kid, I understood what the point of it all was, but I truly didn't understand why such a thing was important until later. It was just a day where I didn't eat, and I hated it. But I still did it. But why?

Because, it was tradition.

Like all families, mine had its own little traditions - which restaurants we would go to for a birthday, what celebrations we went to to see the extended family, etc.

But as time goes on, some traditions fade away, while new ones evolve in their place and take over.

For example, as a kid, during Passover (the holiday when Jews don't eat bread), my brother and I would watch "The Ten Commandments" over and over and over again - and it was a long movie, at 220 minutes (or around 3 hours and 40 minutes)!

My mom would come in, rewind the video, press play and get a few more hours of peace from her twin boys, which was probably sorely needed.

But the best tradition, and one that I still follow to this day, is one that my brother and I made up way back in 1999/2000.

As I have mentioned in previous posts (such as this one), one of my favourite books is Animal Farm by George Orwell. I read it at least once a year, and have for decades. And while the book is a favourite of mine, the animated movie version was never that good. I think we watched it once, but never finished it.

Then, one year, I saw an ad on ABC that a new version was coming with animal puppets created by Jim Henson's company, with such notable actors like Kelsey Grammar, Ian Holm and Sir Patrick Stewart voicing them. We waited and waited, but didn't hear about it until its premiere date in early October 1999.

And it was fantastic! It held very close to the book and the voice and puppet effects were superb.

The trailer for the movie can be found at: http://youtu.be/LAeKX5n-5IE (For some reason, it was not working to put it into the blog - sorry!)

The following year, on Yom Kippur, my brother and I could not decide how to waste our time until we could eat again. When looking through our VHS movies, I stumbled upon our copy of Animal Farm, so we watched it.

The following year, the same problem - this time, my brother found it and jokingly said that we should watch it. I agreed, and so we did. Again and again and again, year after year after year.

So, for the past 13 years, whether we were in the same city or not (or even fasting or not), Daniel and I continue to watch Animal Farm - it has become our tradition!

Whether a tradition is thousands of years old, or just a few years, they help us feel connected to everyone else who does them, establishing a sense of community and togetherness, no matter where you are.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Biting the hand that feeds

I have always loved sharks – there is something about the majesty and mystery that surrounds them in the ocean depths that has always fascinated me. No other fish or aquatic animal has managed to capture my attention more than the shark.

Maybe it has to do that they are relics from the age of the dinosaurs, or perhaps that they come in such a variety of shapes and sizes that there is always one more to learn about. No matter the reason, when I first heard of Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” I was immediately drawn in. I have written about my love of Shark Week before (see here), and for the longest time, I was an avid watcher.

I admit, I wouldn’t watch everything, but I would tune in for most of it.

Over the years, however, Shark Week began to slowly drift away from the science aspect like flotsam and jetsam, idly meandering towards a more cavalier reality show-esque presentation. But I would still tune in for shows that focused on the science of these amazing creatures.

Then, like the telltale dorsal fin, I began to hear rumblings of what was coming for Shark Week 2013. Not only would there be a live show, but also a documentary about C. Megalodon – an extinct shark that could have measured up to 60 feet long and possessed a bite strength that could rip a car in half. C. Megalodon was, in every sense of the word, a giant of the deep.

Just look at those Megalodon jaws! Source
 But the special, entitled “Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives” is the worst kind of travesty against science, education and general good taste.

Christie Wilcox and many others (including Wil Wheaton!) have written about this today, but I thought I would add my voice to the growing uproar.

The “documentary” (or mockumentary, as I will be calling it from now on), focuses on the hunt for an animal that has been extinct for millions of years. The show states that ships have gone missing, unfossilized teeth have been found and that a whale carcass (with a giant bite in its flesh) was found. But there is not a single shred of evidence to substantiate the claims made on the show.

Now, C. Megalodon did exist and it was an awe-inspiring animal, and shows on the network have tackled it before. In fact, the Mythbusters built a fake C. Megalodon to determine just how strong it could be. And that was a great show, as it was rooted in science fact, not fiction.

The fact is that everything in the mockumentary about C. Megalodon was 100 per cent false – the stories, the accounts, the footage – everything. Even the scientists were paid actors.

The entire show was a gigantic lie, put on a network that prides itself on being, according to their corporate website, “the world’s #1 nonfiction media company.

The only thing Discovery did do during the C. Megalodon show was flash a brief disclaimer at the end of the show that lasted for approximately four seconds. You can see it in all its concise glory on Gawker.

Due to the uproar, a Discovery Channel executive producer has said a statement about how viewers feel betrayed by the network.

“With a whole week of Shark Week programming ahead of us, we wanted to explore the possibilities of Megalodon,” Michael Sorensen, executive producer of Shark Week, told FOX411 in a statement. “It’s one of the most debated shark discussions of all time, can Megalodon exist today? It’s Ultimate Shark Week fantasy. The stories have been out there for years and with 95% of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?”

Sorry Michael, but that doesn’t fly. No one says Megalodon is still alive, go ask a scientist.

This is dis-heartening, and deeply offensive to me, not only as a fan of sharks, but also as a biologist and a fan of the Discovery Channel.

I have lots of memories of watching high-quality Discovery Channel programming with my parents, sister and brother. I used to sit in front of it for hours and just sit transfixed, absorbing the knowledge, all while being entertained. Isn’t that the goal?

It got to a point that friends and family kept joking that I should get my own show about animals, like Steve Irwin (a hero of mine). And I wanted one, more than anything.

Sorry Discovery, but C. Megalodon has long since gone the way of the dodo, the dinosaurs and your scientific integrity.

You have lost a supporter of your network, as you have tarnished your own reputation with myth disguised as fact during a time where you can spread the word about sharks and educate people about these wondrous animals. You ripped the heart out of Shark Week – now it is just chum for the bottom feeders.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Man of Steel - Redux

Last month, I wrote a review for Man of Steel entitled "Man of Steel shows its rust," which pointed out the errors that the movie made with continuity, tone, and most importantly, science. Specifically, I questioned the logic that was put into the film, how some important facts were never explained and that the rules that were explained to the audience were routinely bent, broken and otherwise disregarded.

You can read my full review here.

Recently, the website How It Should Have Ended (which is a brilliant website and I highly recommend you visit it) did their take on Man of Steel. Their response is so perfect that I must share it here, since it would solve practically all the problems I brought up.


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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The true myth

Books are extremely important to me, and they have been ever since I learned to read.

When my parents taught me (and my twin brother, Daniel), we took to it slowly, like a nervous cat testing the water. It took a while to get my brother and me interested in reading - for a long time, we were content being read to before bed.

But as my Dad has said numerous times since: "Once you started reading, you didn't stop."

As I started to read, I began to devour books so fast that my parents could not stock my bookshelf fast enough. So, I would re-read books over and over again, until the new shipment came in.

At school, I would plead with my parents to purchase a bunch of books from the book order forms for me, take books out of the library by the cartload and purchase books at the bookstore every time I was within running distance of one (which was often).

The more I read, the more I wanted to continue reading. I loved the escapism inherent to being transported to another world or life, the "a ha!" moment of a mystery novel, the well-crafted pun, etc. I became a reading machine.

In fact, I started reading adult books long before anyone in my class moved beyond The Babysitter's Club and Goosebumps. My very first adult book was, naturally, Jurassic Park. And the books only got bigger and more complicated - such as Clan of the Cave Bear, Stephen King's It and more. I started to experiment with different genres, narrative styles and themes, but always returned to two types: horror and science.

I relished the challenge of trying to understand what was going on in the universe that was created within my mind, and I honed my reading skills to the point where I became an extremely fast reader.

My passion for the written word could explain why I decided to go into journalism and why I am currently working on two very different novels and a short story in my spare time.

But it was not until university, where I took an English class on a whim, that I really learned what it was to investigate literature.

In that class, all about Gothic literature (naturally), we explored three types of horror stories - vampires, werewolves and witches. We carefully dissected one of my favourite books, Dracula by Bram Stoker, and the hidden literary agenda slowly began to unfurl. Suddenly, a red flower was not simply an ornamental thing, but it served a purpose. The random encounter with a character was part of a greater plan. The path of the hero was written out long beforehand. And while the characters, events and situations differ, a large majority of stories shared a similar structure - known as "The Hero's Journey" (or the "monomyth").

I've been wanting to write something about "The Hero's Journey" for a while, but could not think of a "novel" way to do it (if you'll pardon the pun). Then, I found a video on YouTube, and I realized that I could not do it any better, or in a more original way, than this video did with puppets.

It's more common than you think - from Star Wars to the French Connection, from Harry Potter to Happy Gilmore. Watch and see!

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