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The definitive host: June 2011

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

Sunday, June 26, 2011

What's in a Word?

I’ve always liked language, which could explain why I love to read, why I’m a journalist and tell stories to other people for a living. Language has always fascinated me, especially its evolution.

For example: My nephew came over the other day, and being that he is just over 1 year old, he is starting to attempt to make sounds and words. He doesn’t say much, but what he does, he says a lot!

As of now, his new favorite words are “bubble” and “apple,” with the standard “mama” and “dada” thrown in every now and then for a bit of variety. Watching him discover the different sounds that make up words in the English language is fascinating.

But, having spoken English since I was a young kid, it has made me wonder more about the language itself and the little idiosyncrasies that pop up everywhere you go across the world.

Take my home, Canada.

Since Canada is so close to the United States, it is understandable that they heavily influenced our language. However, we were also proud members of the British Commonwealth (and still are), so we also put in a bit of British into our language as well. Put those into a pot, add some maple syrup, a hockey stick and a dash of snow, and you’ve got Canada!

But, like any species left alone to the forces of change, the Canadian language started to evolve and reflect more and more of our beliefs and history until new words began popping up in our vocabulary. Slowly but surely, unique words began to worm their way into our language and become speech staples that Canadians use every day without thinking.

Those little words and phrases that are unique or different are almost like a bit of shorthand for the people in that country, but outsiders can become immensely confused. As a kid, realizing that not everyone knew how to get a “Timbit,” what “poutine” is, or what a “kerfuffle” is, can be a bit of a shock.

That is very first hint that the world is much bigger than you can possibly comprehend at that moment, and opens up great new worlds of imagination and brilliance. Eventually, you uncover the notion that while not everyone is identical, each person is unique and different.

That grand realization can change your point of view forever.

For example, here’s a bit of Canadian language to test you and your friends with (as long as neither of you are Canadian!):

Do you know what a “toque” is (pronounced as: tuke)?
What about “pop,” “serviette” and “garburator”?
What are “loonies,” “toonies,” and “beaver tails”?
And finally, what does “eh” (pronounced “ayyy”) mean?

The answers for what the words mean be found below.

There are lots of words out there that may mean something to you and your neighbors, but not to anyone else in a different country that speaks the same language. Pay attention to what you say, and you'll be surprised how often these words come up!

Feel free to add some of your favorites in the comments.

Toque – A knit or woolen cap usually worn in the winter
Pop– Carbonated non-alcoholic soft drinks like Pepsi or Coke. If you ask for “soda,” you’ll probably get soda water
Serviette – A napkin (from the French word for napkin)
Garburator – A garbage disposal found in your sink
Loonie – The Canadian one-dollar coin (so named because of the loon on it)
Toonie – The Canadian two-dollar coin
Beaver tails – Flat pastries that are deep-fried and resemble the tail of a beaver with a wide assortment of toppings including ice cream, powdered sugar and chocolate
Eh – Usually placed at the end of a sentence, akin to saying “right?” or “don’t you think”?

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Who in The Doctor

I absolutely love time-travel stories because they deal with so many issues that are universal, such as love, loss, pain and betrayal. And a good time-travel story never uses the science fiction aspect as a gimmick, but as a mechanism to further the story and the characters within.

This is not the first time I’ve discussed time-travel on my blog, but I won’t be discussing parallel time-lines and paradoxes this time you can find that here). No, today I’ll be talking about something a dash different.

If you’ve been following my Facebook or Twitter feeds over the past week or so, you know that I have recently become a fan of the 2005 BBC television re-launch of Doctor Who.

Friends have been telling me for years to sit down and watch it, but I never did. I always figured that I didn’t need another science fiction television series in my life and that I watch more than enough TV as it is. But, a few weeks back, a conversation with some friends on Twitter finally changed my mind.

Thanks to discussions with @cthulhuchick, @TheNerdyBird and @katiedoyle, I finally sat down and watched the pilot episode of the 2005 re-launch. I was a bit hesitant, as Doctor Who has A LOT of history behind it, but they were very encouraging. As people who have known me for a while, they reassured me that the new series was designed for new and old fans and I trusted their judgment.

And they were right.

But why is Doctor Who so popular, even today?

I’m no expert in Doctor Who (I’m only on season 2 of six of the re-launch so far), so all I can do is tell you about what I have noticed from my experiences watching it.

First and foremost, Doctor Who has a pretty simple premise for a sci-fi show. It is about a man, known only as The Doctor, who can travel in both space and time and picks up companions along the way to share his adventures with. It is really not all that different than any wandering traveler story, except that the road here is space and time.

The doctor travels in a ship called TARDIS (pronounced TAR-diss) is an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension In Space and resembles an old 1960’s London police call box. The ship is piloted by The Doctor, who is the last of an immortal race of aliens known as the Time Lords who can see everything that was, is, or could be all at the same time.

You also never learn The Doctor’s name, hence he always introduces himself as “The Doctor” leading to some characters replying with the title of the show, “Doctor who?”

If all of this sounds like nonsense, let me boil it down for you: The Doctor is the last of his species and travels around both space and time righting wrongs and protecting the sanctity of life with people he meets along the way.

To date, The Doctor has been played by 11 different actors from 1963 – 2011, all playing the same character who, when near death, “regenerates” into a new body while still retaining all his previous memories.

Using travel in space and time as a device, Doctor Who allows many complex topics to be discussed in a very interesting way, along with some very unique and British humor and characters. Through these methods, Doctor Who can address a wide variety of topics such as health (in the episode “New Earth”), warfare (in “The Empty Child” and ”The Doctor Dances") and even on the evils of television (in “The Idiot’s Lantern”).

Not only that, but Doctor Who prides itself on being a family friendly show that fans of all ages can watch together. It doesn’t rely on blood, guts and sex like other science fiction shows tend to fall back onto.

How many science fiction shows can say that, and boast being risen from the ashes 16 years after its initial cancellation, and be more popular than ever? Who can answer that?

The Doctor can.

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day Deluge

Happy father's day!

I hope that you are finding a way to celebrate that suits you dad's needs, whether it be a big affair at a fancy restaurant, a small brunch or just sitting around with friends and family remembering times long past.

This blog post will be a little different, just like this past week. There has been a lot of family stuff that has required my attention, so I have not been online as much as usual. But, a number of things have caught my eye this week, which I want to share and discuss with you.

The first is a recent publication of mine on Scientific American celebrating, what else, but the good (and a few bad) animal dads. After all, in the animal kingdom, many father's do not do very much. In fact, they just inseminate the mother and wander off. But, in this article, the lovely Lauren Reid and I decided to showcase some truly magnificent examples of animal fathers picking up the slack and really showing off!

You can read the article here.

The next little bit I want to share with you is a blog post I stumbled upon last week, that was extremely well done. It was written by a fellow science writer, DeLene Beeland, who writes a great blog entitled Wild Muse who writes about evolution and ecology.

A recent post of hers was called Advice on Science Writing, and was extremely well done.

I get asked why I chose this field quite a bit, and my answers have slowly shifted from when I decided that was what I was going to do to actually doing it now. And it can be difficult to explain why you like doing something so much without sounding completely insane, as we all tend to do when we are passionate about what we do. In this post, DeLene perfectly encapsulates the difficulties of being a science journalist, but also the thrill.

Here are a few tidbits:

"It’s selfish, but writing about science allows me to learn with each and every story I work on, and that aspect is the fuel that keeps me running. It also gives me a small mouthpiece to communicate about issues I feel the general public ought to know more about: ecology, biological diversity and the affect of human development upon wildlife and natural systems."

"The language of science is not always easily translated for lay audiences. And the more highly trained you are, the harder it may be for you to be cognizant of that gap. There are some rock stars that can straddle both worlds and the languages codified by each, but for the rest of us mortals, we need to study the language of popular media, the way stories are constructed and told, and how ideas are imparted in persuasive essays and objective news stories. There are patterns, hierarchies and formulas that work well, and it’s time well spent to analyze them, learn them, and harness them for your own work. Your audience, and your editors, will thank you."

If you want to understand science writing and those that do it, do give the article a read. It's extremely well-done, and doesn't pull any punches with regards to the difficulty of the industry.

Finally, about a week ago, my dad pointed out an article to me on from The Toronto Star about an issue that I've spent a lot of time doing research and writing about: Invasive species.

Invasive species are animal that have been brought into a completely foreign habitat and thrived to a point of harming the local flora and fauna, and even causing extinction of native species. Examples are goats on the Galapagos islands, zebra mussels in the Great Lakes and the Nile Perch in Africa.

In Canada, there is a new threat: The Emerald Ash Borer or EAB.

Ugly little guy, isn't he?

The insect traveled to the northern United States in the late 1990s from Asia, and completely decimated the ash tree population there back in 2002. And since then, the insects have been spreading into over 15 states and all over Southern Ontario.

The insect is a master at what it does, and that is killing ash trees. The larvae burrow into the tree and make their way in a serpentine pattern, cutting off supplies of the trees nutrients and killing it. It is akin to being slowly starved to death.

But this is old news, as the insect was found in Toronto as early as 2007 (far from its predicted arrival in 2022). What is new is what is going to be done about protecting the almost 900,000 ash trees in the Toronto area. The answer?


The city is not taking an preventative action, and instead focusing on replacing every tree with other species instead of battling the insect and letting up to 95 per cent of all the ash trees in Toronto die. Sadly, not much can be done for a tree once it is infected, and must be destroyed to prevent further spread.

There are preventative measures that can be taken, such as injecting a tree with the drug, TreeAzin, a biological pesticide. But Brian Hamilton, the Emerald Ash Borer Program Specialist for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), says that TreeAzin cannot save an already infected tree.

"Once injected, the chemical kills the larva under the bark and is absorbed into the leaves. And the double whammy is that, if an adult female EAB eats the leaves, she becomes sterile and cannot produce any offspring."

While TreeAzin is a good solution for uninfected trees, it is extremely expensive to administer, and any time money is involved (and we're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars), the purse-strings tighten. A few other control methods are being explored in the United States, such as utilizing stingless wasps from Chinese forests as a natural predator of the EAB. However, this is just another example of introducing other (potentially less harmful) species to eliminate others in a foreign environment.

But is doing nothing, like Toronto is, the best option?

I should hope not.

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

What Lurks In The Deep?

The world is such a fascinating place, and yet there is so much that we do not yet know, especially regarding the deepest depths of the ocean and the creatures that lie within it. Due to the limitations of our bodies, it is extremely difficult to explore that world, but by studying animals that make the daily trek from the depths to the shallows, we can begin to create a picture of life in the deep.

Some of these very creatures are from the molluscan class of animals known as cephalopods (squid, octopuses and cuttlefish). Personally, nothing quite draws me in like a cephalopod, which is why I was excited to read the book Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, And Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams.

The book was a magnificent read, and I learned a lot about cephalopods, such as that some squid species will rip off one of their own arms to escape a predator, exactly how cephalopods have greatly impacted human medical care, and how the incredible camouflage mechanism of the cuttlefish works.

Thanks to the website Deep Sea News, you can read my review of Williams' book here.

If you are at all interested in this highly unique class of animals, please give the review a read and be sure to pick up this book!

Of all the animals I have seen in my life, there is something in the eyes of a cephalopod that make you think that as you are staring at them, they they are staring back at you just as intensely.

P.S. For all of you English majors/teachers/experts who are scoffing at my use of "octopuses" instead of "octopi,"I have news for you: they are both right!

Don't believe me? Watch this video!

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