Writers: Watch Your Headlines

vegetarian cuisine

Photo via Pixabay

They say the pen is mightier than the sword … and I do agree that it packs a powerful punch. “With great power comes great responsibility,” and this is so true of writers. Our words are powerful — especially when they appear in headlines. They inspire, inform and change opinions. And, when a writer is not careful about his or her word choice, problems can ensue.

For example, in late March, reporters wrote about a study led by researchers at Cornell University. Headlines included “The vegetarian gene: a plant-based diet causes lasting genetic mutations that could increase cancer risk” from The Telegraph and “Long term vegetarian diet changes human DNA raising risk of cancer and heart disease” from Medical Daily.

The problem is those headlines are inaccurate and create confusion for the readers. The words are misleading. As reported in Vice, a co-author of the study was humiliated by these headlines and wanted to set the record straight. He told Vice that the study found an allele in some populations whose ancestors ate a primarily vegetarian diet. Evolution enabled people with this allele to produce their own synthetic versions of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which vegetarian and vegan diets can sometimes lack.

In other words, a vegetarian diet doesn’t change a person’s DNA. A person’s DNA changes how that person reacts to certain diets.

The study postulated that those with that allele may be better off sticking with a vegetarian diet, so they didn’t get too much of these fatty acids, which could cause inflammation. However, someone reading article headlines like those mentioned above may believe that switching to a vegetarian diet could change their DNA and make them more prone to cancer.

Can you imagine how a person who believes a vegetarian diet can make them more cancer-prone is going to think about another story with headlines like “Eradicating meat from diet may add years to life: Study” from The Nation, which appeared in early May?

Contradicting — and sometimes inaccurate — headlines not only confuse people about the information provided, but give science itself a bad wrap! Many people don’t actually read the articles attached to headlines and make assumptions (and decisions) based on headlines alone. Some people might even draw the conclusion that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about and then decide not to pay attention to information that could help them live a better life.

John Oliver highlighted this confusion from media reporting of studies in a broadcast of his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” He noted how the media often negates to report whether or not the study was done on human or animal subjects, the number of subjects involved in the study, and who funded the study. With so much misinformation out there, the general public becomes more confused about what is healthy and what should be avoided.

So, if you are a writer who covers science, I implore you to report on study results responsibly and eschew sexy but misleading headlines.

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The Immune System’s Role in Longevity

elderly woman

Public domain image from Pixabay

One of the causes of a human’s “shortened” life span is the increased risk of infections and certain cancers caused the the reduced effectiveness of the immune system. You see, as we age, the thymus, which produces new T cells (a type of white blood cell that is key to the effectiveness of the immune system), becomes fatty and loses its ability to create new ones.

New research by Yale School of Medicine scientists may lead to a way to turn back that particular clock. They’ve found that a hormone that extends the lifespan of mice by 40% is produced by specialized cells in the thymus gland. The team also found that increasing the levels of this hormone, called FGF21, protects against the loss of immune function that comes with age.

Published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study’s findings have future implications for improving immune function in the elderly, for obesity, and for illnesses such as cancer and type-2 diabetes.

Now, if you’re writing a story that includes someone with a longer-than-normal lifespan, you might be able to incorporate these findings into your work. Here are some writing prompts to help you explore.

Writing Prompts

What if …

  • Vampires had really strong thymus glands? Could you revert a vampire to humanity by damaging that gland?
  • Scientists developed a serum that improved thymus health, improving the immune system and lengthening life?
  • We discovered that people to live to be 100 or more had healthier thymus glands? Since many of these people say that the key to their long lives is an upbeat, grateful attitude, could that mean that a positive outlook in life guards the thymus from getting fatty and unhealthy? How would that mechanism work?
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Lord Vayne – Chapter 4

carriage

Photo source: Morguefile.com

Here is another sample chapter draft from Lord Vayne.

Radu had the afternoon off. His father was caring for the goats now and he only needed to pick up a few things from the market and deliver some cheese from his mother to Maria.

Radu liked Maria. She seemed more grounded and stable than his parents, despite her habit of talking to her dead and buried husband.

She had great stories to tell. She and her husband had helped many refugees, including his parents, come into Walachia safely when Austrian rule made it difficult for serfs to continue living in Transylvania. He was just a baby then and did not remember any of it. But it seemed clear that the experience left painful scars on his parents’ minds. Maybe that was why they were so daft.

At first he thought to deliver the cheese on the way to market, but then — because he wanted to be free to dawdle at Maria’s — he decided to go to market first. He was glad he did for when he arrived at Maria’s he found she had a lovely guest — the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

He found them working in Maria’s garden. Maria, as usual, was humming and singing away. In fact, she was in unusually good spirits today. Her guest was quietly helping her.
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Romanian research: What’s in a name?

Castle BranI wanted to have the novel take place in someplace that could be real, so I researched how towns might be named. I eventually chose Liniste Sat, which means quiet village in Romanian. This is a great name because it evokes the feel of a real Romanian name, while having an underlying meaning of what the place is supposed to be: a quite, backwater village, tucked away in the Carpathian mountains.

For Lord Vayne’s castle, I chose the name Castle Scapare. Most castles in Romania follow the nomenclature of Castle + Name. I chose Scapare because it means “oversight.” Lord Vayne oversees the land of Liniste, watching over its people, many of whom are his descendents. And, another meaning of “oversight” is “an unintentional failure to notice or do something.” This happens a lot in Lord Vayne’s life and in this novel, so I’m making use of the double meaning!

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Lord Vayne – Chapter 3

syringe

Photo Source: MorgueFile.com

Here is another sample chapter draft from Lord Vayne.

This time, Maria approached Grigor’s grave with excitement and jubilation. The clearing seemed brighter, cheerier since her last visit. The twitter of thrush and tit lent a gaiety to what Maria normally thought of as a somber place. She could barely kneel still as she quickly prayed her thank yous.

“She’s obviously in need of help,” Maria told the tombstone. “She’s confused, wears strange clothes and speaks with an accent. I think she may be in trouble, running away from something. She seems secretive, but not in a sinister way, more like the refugees were before we gained their trust. Helping her will almost be like old times.”

A breeze gently caressed her face and she almost felt Grigor’s warm hand on her shoulder, almost heard his baritone voice say “Dragoste meu,” in her right ear. She felt his love — their love for each other — fill her with warmth, like hot tea on a chilly September night.

She smiled quietly for a moment more and then looked up toward the sun. “Oh my! I must have been here for hours. Arian will be worried.” She got up and hurried back to her cabin.

*     *     *

 
Arian entered the clearing where Tengali lay waiting. She had forgotten how broken and shattered all the trees and bushes had looked, ripped from their roots by her inexpert landing. Camouflaging this would take some time, unless….
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Romanian Research – Vampires

vampire

“Vampire world bank protest16”. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve watched so many movies and TV shows with vampires and even read a few books, so I have a general take on what vampires are about. However, there is a historic novel aspect to this work, so I wanted to find out what Romanians had to say about vampires.

First, they didn’t call them vampires. They were either called moroi, which comes from the Romanian word “mort” meaning “dead” or the Slavic word meaning “nightmare,” or they were called strigoi, which apparently come in both live and dead versions.

Living strigoi were more like witches. They had two hearts, or two souls or both. At night they would send out their souls to visit with other strigoi and, on occasions snack on local livestock and neighbors.

Dead strigoi were reanimated corpses that consumed blood and attacked members of their living family.

Interestingly enough, you could be born with an predilection for becoming a vampire in Romanian lore. If someone was born with a caul, an extra nipple, a tail, or extra hair — no doubt about it, he or she was doomed to vampirism. And, watch out families with lots of children. If the first six were the same gender, the seventh child of the same gender would become a vampire. And poor preemies — they were also doomed.
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Lord Vayne – Chapter 2

wolf

Photo Source: MorgueFile.com

Here is another sample chapter draft from Lord Vayne.

Maria hummed as she walked into the chicken coop. The hens seemed to cluck in tune with her as she reached beneath them to collect the morning’s harvest of eggs. The chill air didn’t seem to bother her this fine day. She had a bounce in her step and was brimming with joy. She looked forward to whatever the day would bring.

Taking her modest collection of eggs, she walked along the vegetable garden path and in through the kitchen entrance of her cabin home. She put the eggs away and gathered her gardening tools.

Bobbing back out of the house she plunked herself down by the carrots and began digging them up. All the while, her happy tune never faltered. She was so engrossed in her task that she didn’t hear Arian’s footsteps clumping through the fallen leaves in the nearby forest.

It wasn’t until Arian’s approach caused the chiffchaff in the nearby spruce to flutter loudly away that Maria looked up. What she saw made her catch her breath.
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Romanian research – Owls

European Barn Owl

Photo: By AllisonMiller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When I started writing Lord Vayne, I had never stepped foot in Romania, where a bulk of the novel takes place. The only things I knew about the country I read in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. So, of course, I felt the need to do some research to get details right.

I researched flora, fauna and Geo-political history. And then, in 2005, I had the opportunity to visit the country for 10 days, which was really amazing. I took a lot of pictures, some of which are below. Click on the thumbnails to see the larger picture.
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I’ve joined Web Serial Writing Month

Lord Vayne LogoToday marks the beginning of the 9th annual Web Serial Writing Month. I’ve challenged myself to move forward on a novel I’ve been working on (more off than on) since my undergraduate days.

The working title is Lord Vayne and it is loosely about a star-crossed, ill-fated romance between an alien made immortal by nano-technology and a vampire. You can learn more about the characters and the story here.

I’ve already posted the drafts of the first two chapters to this blog, and an challenging myself to post a chapter a week throughout this month.

I welcome your comments and feedback on my novel. I’ve been inspired to do something like this for years because of Kealan Patrick Burke. Many years ago, he posted weekly the chapters of what eventually became his novel Master of the Moors.

For whatever reason, I never got off my duff and did it. Now, thanks to WeSeWriMo, I’m going to do it!

Here are links to the first two chapters, and expect Chapter 2 by Friday.

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Can co-evolution be applied to intelligent life forms?

This morning, I opened my email and found a press release about how insects and plant co-evolved, each one changing to adapt to life with the other. Here’s a video that explains the concept:

 
As I was listening to the video and reading the press release, it struck me how the same process could have created a variety of other traits beyond flavor. What if, I thought, co-evolution could explain some symbiotic rise of intelligence on another planet.

Now, the idea of co-evolution is not new. In 1964, biologists Peter Raven and Paul Erhlich published a landmark study that introduced the concept. And, at this point — if you’re a Star Trek fan — you might be saying “Wasn’t co-evolution used to explain the Trill?”

Yes, but the concept wasn’t explored to its depth. And, what is notable about the information brought to light by the University of Missouri team is the underlying genomic mechanism that is responsible for this phenomenon. That wasn’t tapped for Star Trek, because this is new information. At the time those episodes were written, co-evolution was simply mentioned to explain how the symbiotic relationship of Trill worm thing and humanoid host came to be.

But, in light of the new insight into the genetic basis of co-evolution, wouldn’t it be interesting to tell that kind of story on a deeper level? What kinds of adaptations would plants need to have to encourage the rise of intelligence in a humanoid species? Or could something like that even logically exist? What other kinds of genetically grounded stories of co-evolution could us “what if?” writers dream up now. I challenge you to explore!

Writing Prompts

What if …

  • Intelligence was an adaptation to improve a species’ ability to survive in the face of its food source’s own adaptations against being eaten? The co-evolution of butterflies and broccoli was essentially a chemical battle of survival. Plants evolved toxic chemicals to keep the insects away. Then the insects evolved the ability to handle those chemicals anyway.
  • The study of genomics uncovered that some of our own adaptations were the result of this same kind of give and take between the plants and animals in our environment and our ancestors? What might that look like?
  • We could use this process to create a more sustainable food source for here on Earth or even on other planets we colonize? “If we can harness the power of genetics and determine what causes these copies of genes, we could produce plants that are more pest-resistant to insects that are co-evolving with them — it could open different avenues for creating plants and food that are more efficiently grown,” said Chris Pires, associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Arts and Science and a researcher in the Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri.
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