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The definitive host: June 2012

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

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My love of literature

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about reading for pleasure, without actually doing any of it myself.

Let me back up by saying that I am an extremely avid reader. I read the newspaper every morning, as well as countless blogs, press releases and articles for work. However, ingesting all this news has produced an unexpected side effect.

When I arrive home from work, it is difficult to pick up a book (or magazine or other such literature) and read for pleasure. It becomes a chore, which is something that reading should not be and never has been for me before.

I started reading later than other kids, which my parents say is not unusual for twins, since we also started talking a bit later than most kids (though my brother and I did have a “secret” language which we could both understand, but sounded like gibberish to everyone else … believe me, there’s video evidence of this).

But as my Dad is fond of saying, “Once you picked up a book, you never stopped.”

And I didn’t.

I inhaled books and progressed up the reading ladder quickly.

I started with children’s books, but quickly progressed to young kids, then young adults and finally to ‘adult’ books. By the point I was in grade 4/5, I was reading Michael Crichton and Stephen King books by the pound. I was a machine, who not only understood what I was reading, but did so quickly and enjoyed them.

It was shortly after grade 5 that I was on a “books that inspired the great horror movies of yester-year” kick that included Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Picture of Dorian Grey and more, and read what was to be one of my favourite books ever – Dracula by Bram Stoker.

Vampires always held a weird fascination with me, and it was only natural that I would eventual read the classic novel. And to my surprise, I enjoyed it so much that I would continue to read it multiple times a year.

What still stands out from that initial reading is the fact that it was written differently, in the form of diary entries of the main characters. It was not the traditional style of narration, and it made me feel like I was reading a secret that I should not be. Add the fact that it initially unfolded like a mystery, possessed an interesting cast of characters and had subtext that requires multiple readings – I was hooked.

My copy has been so enjoyed over the decades that I had to buy a new copy when I took a course in university entitled “Horror and Terror: Variations in Gothic.”

While Dracula remained my favourite book for a long time, many books joined it in being repeat reads, including a wide variety by Stephen King, as well as the Harry Potter books, every Sherlock Holmes story/novel, the Lord of the Rings, etc...

But then, many years later, my sister suggested to me a tiny little book that I had heard of in passing but never really considered. Since she usually never steers me wrong, I went to Chapters and picked it up and polished it off within an hour or so.

The story was simple enough: the oppressed rebel against their oppressors and believe things will be different, but the new government slowly but surely devolves into a very similar beast.

I am, of course, talking about George Orwell’s masterpiece, Animal Farm.

It is a short read from the mid 1940’s, clocking in at about 110 pages or so, but it remains relevant, interesting and holds true even 70+ years later. Disguised as a fairytale about animals taking over their own farm and forming a new society, it is actual a morality fable about the corrupting nature of power, communism and greed.

You could write dozens of papers about what Orwell talks about, and probably many have, but the cultural subtext is not even what interests me the most. What I enjoy about the book are the interactions between the animals, the foreshadowing and the belief that if we would just look a little harder, animals are not so different than us after all.

These books, Dracula and Animal Farm, remain a constant highlight anytime I read them, like re-visiting an old friend or recalling a fond memory of love long lost.

They are far from perfect – Dracula drags on at points, characters vanish and reappear with no explanation (except for Dracula, who has supernatural powers and can actually do that) and leaves many plot threads dangling at the end that you could make a scarf. And Animal Farm is so short that it is a stretch calling it a novel and the symbolism is so blatant at points that you want to shout, “I get it Orwell, communism and oppression is bad, would you please move on?”

And yet, I love the books I re-read, and I always enjoy them, whether I have days to lounge around and take my time or speed read through them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my bookshelf is calling me … I wonder what I should read next. Any suggestions?

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Friday, June 15, 2012


Over the past week, I have seen two movies about “science,” but in reality, discuss much bigger topics.

The first one I saw was a movies from a few years ago, “Splice,” starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. The plot is simple mad scientists gone rogue kind of tale – make a discovery, make something freaky, try to keep it a secret and live to regret that decision.


The science in the movie is kind of iffy – Brody and Polley, as genetic engineers, splice DNA from a variety of species to create a new life-form and harvest precious chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry. But, when they perish, they go Frankenstein and decide to add something else into the DNA melting pot – MAN.

Moving away from the ethical implications, the animals they splice together would never truly be compatible. According to the X-Rays in the credits, there are reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds, fish, etc… all in the mix.

Just … no.

And then, they create a new creature that looks like a bird mixed with a lamprey with human-esque eyes, which then gradually turns into something resembling a little girl with a cranial fissure bisecting her head and a very long tail with a stinger at the end. The creature, named “Dren” (get it? Nerd backwards) almost dies before they realize she has TWO sets of lungs, one of which is amphibious.

After a series of events, Dren quickly matures into a woman that Adrien Brody has sex with after learning that Sarah Polley used her DNA to make the hybrid.

Oh, and Dren sprouts wings like an archeopteryx.

Then, as if to make things worse, Dren then scampers off, kills Brody, switches gender, rapes Sarah Polley and dies. And then, surprise surprise, Sarah Polley ends up pregnant and ‘sells her soul’ and unborn child to the same pharmaceutical company that she was originally working for.

The movie ends with her saying, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Normally, I can shut my brain off for stupid movies and just enjoy it, but I became more and more upset by this film as it slowly pranced along. It got to a point where I was yelling at the TV, “NO! Bad science!”

I believe what bugged me the most was that there are two types of science fiction movies: those based in a close-facsimile to our world (whether in the future or present-esque time) or one based in a different universe with superheroes, aliens, etc.

Splice was visibly in a world quite similar to ours, but pushed the boundaries of science and imagination into the other territory. It required too many intuitive leaps to make it believable.

Take another sci-fi movie based in a world similar to our own – The Fly, by David Cronnenberg and Jeff Goldblum.

You take one premise, that Goldblum’s character invents teleportation, and the rest of the movie builds upon that one premise. You learn all the “rules” of the experiment quickly and, when his DNA merges with that of a fly, it’s a believable. And his disgusting transformation needs no other scientific explanation.

The other movie I saw was Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.”

A lot has been written on the movie from two very different perspectives – that it is a prequel to the Alien movies, and that it is its own movie. And, I don’t think either of those is quite right. I believe it is more of a hybrid of the two, since it has connections to the Alien series, but not quite a straight line.

The science in the movie is a bit more believable because it takes place in such a dystopian future on an alien world with bizarre beings. So, because of that, you’re able to distance yourself from the reality of our world and focus on the mysterious new one displayed on the silver screen.

You do get a bit of DNA/human evolution/creationism/evolution in the movie that muddies the waters, as well as so many hidden meanings regarding empowerment and the merits of life that could make your head spin.

But then there’s the xenomorph.

From all the blogs and commentaries I’ve read, it appears that we are witnessing the evolution of the xenomorph – the spot in the bottle that David finds, the “face lampreys,” the squid baby, giant face hugger and finally an early xenomorph.

And if you take a close look at creature that emerges from the Engineer at the end of the movie, it is similar to the alien we all know and move, but a bit more rudimentary. It is lacking some of the specific traits of the xenomorph that we all know and love.

I enjoyed the movie as a separate entity from Scott's Alien franchise, but as a prequel lead-in, I can see why people are disappointed. It answers a few bigger questions from that universe, but adds so many more.

Two movies: One that deals with a human/multi-species hybrid that kills scientists and blurs the lines of acceptable science, while the other deals humankind’s search for answers about life, the universe and xenomorphs on an alien world in the far future.

But at least science is IN the movies, right?

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