Friday, January 21, 2011

Pinball Repair Master Adrift in the Age of Modern Marketing

Florida State Highway 33 is a desolate ribbon of asphalt that connects Polk City to Groveland, two places that are little more than speed bumps and never destinations.   It is an artery we must transit when moving between Gainesville and the USDA labs in Winter Haven, FL, as they do a lot of analytical chemistry in association with our projects.  There are no gas stations, mini marts or scenic stops, just mile after mile of pine and palm, broken up only by a toothless goon here and there, occasionally one rolling a tire.

About six miles out of Polk City and 21 miles before Groveland there is a sign hammered into a naked spot on a tree.  It is about eighteen inches wide and twelve inches tall.  It is unpainted wood and features black block letters that say PINBALL REPAIR, followed by a phone number.

Now, what are the odds....   you see where I'm going.

Imagine the almost infinite alignment that needs to happen here.  First, someone has to own a pinball machine.  Next, it has to be broken.  Next, they have to want to repair it.  Next, they could find nobody to do the work.  Next, they have to be driving north on Florida State Road 33 from Polk City to Groveland, during the day.  Finally, they have to actually spy this rather innocuous sign, then be quick with a pen to jot down the phone number.

WTF?  I think you'd be more likely to find Bigfoot walking arm-in-arm with Jimmy Hoffa in the middle of Disneyland, or the Cubs winning the Super Bowl.

Sadly I picture a sixty-something unkept guy, perhaps missing a limb, sitting near an old rotary dial phone in his home near the modest suburbs of (ahhem) Polk City.  Every morning he dons the coveralls, sits down at his work desk by 9AM, on time, every day, waiting for a service call.  He sits among boxes of flippers, bumpers, plungers and tilt lights, maybe rolling a heavy shiny silver ball across his desk over and over to keep what's left of his sanity.

But the call never comes.  Perhaps once in the middle of the night the phone exploded into its song, leaving him only to find a wrong number.

He might wonder what is wrong.  Is his advertising network not connecting with its market?  Maybe he needs  to modernize his marketing strategy, perhaps a note in the church bulletin or maybe he needs to thumb it up to Groveland and put ads under windshield wipers at the DQ.  Clearly the net he has cast is not reaching his potential clientele in broken-pinball-machine space.

To me it speaks to the ambitions of the human spirit and how well-intended ideas die from poor execution.  Next time I'm down there I'm going to get that number and make the phone call.  Stand by for details.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Cause of Mysterious Bird/Fish Deaths Revealed!

Over the last week there have been numerous reports of widespread avian and fish death.  Apparently large swarms of birds and huge schools of fish give up the ghost for no known reason.  Or so it is thought.

The genius think tank over at Natural News has it all figured out.  In his January 4th column Mike Adams applies his usual less-than-rigorous approach to resolve this mystery.  The column speculates based on zero evidence:

For all we know, these 100,000 dead fish are downstream from a field of GMO corn that mutated into something even more deadly than the GMOs we already know. This may not be so far-fetched, actually:Monsanto has a corporate office in Arkansas(in Stuttgart, Arkansas) that's not too many miles from the Arkansas River.

Let me get this straight.  His hypothesis is that there was a mutation in GMO corn that was specific to the transgene, not the 40,000 other genes, and then this corn was magically transported into water and killed fish, because the Monsanto office is a few miles away.

Is it just me, or does this reek of intellectual emptiness?

Adams makes his usual allegations and conclusions without any evidence supporting them.  In other words, making shit up.  Only the scientifically bankrupt could make such leaps.  In typical Natural News/Anti-GMO fashion, the ignorant choose to dismiss real causes and facts to promote an agenda that feels groovy but is scientifically baseless.  This misdirection leads us away from real causes and eventual, scientific solutions.

Yo Mike, what are the "deadly GMOs we already know"?  From the peer-reviewed literature please. Oh, that's right, you can't find it there because BigFarma owns all the journals and scientists, leaving websites and opinions to do the scholarly heavy lifting.

Sadly, the article was also picked up by Google News.  That's how I found it.  The problem is that Natural News isn't about news at all, it is a website dedicated to promoting the naturalistic fallacy.  There is no science, no rigor, no review, just the opinions of a few whack jobs that make money by promoting junk and junk science.

Of course, maybe if the fish and birds were wearing Kinoki Foot Pads or energy bracelets this stuff would not happen.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Scintillating Dinner Conversations...

... on a tiny, tiny keyboard... that don't involve me.

This is the frustrating reality of life in the smartphone era- a syndrome I refer to as Hyper-Connectivity Addiction.  The syndrome presents itself as a constellation of symptoms, ranging from inappropriate use of electronic communication devices, prioritization of electronic interaction over personal interaction, and etiquette-busting rudeness with no sense of time or place for use of personal electronics.

Over the last year, going out to dinner with others frequently turns from a time to share conversation and time together into a time where I watch someone play with a phone.  Whether it is texting, talking, or checking their fairy-tale football team, the time at the table previously filled with witty banter, personal interaction and news exchange has transformed into the prime venue to catch up on trivial electronic business with the rest of the world.

Now, it could just be that I'm boring and bring nothing to the table, leading those I'm with to seek distraction.  I fully admit that possibility.

However, I really think that there's a time and a place for technology.  I am trying to train my 12 and 16 year old nieces on how to have a conversation.  I'd like to hear about their schoolwork, their days, etc.  Two of my nephews are 20 and 22.  We were disconnected for 7 years and they grew into really cool guys.  I look forward to the limited time I have with them, but invariably have to share it with the rest of the world via iPhone.

Again, maybe I'm just boring.  Or smell.  Or both.

Good times at dinner, watching family electronically 
interact with the rest of the world. 
(Taken with a smart phone)

And I do verbally request that phones be put away, usually met by rolling eyeballs and a few minutes of phone-free time.

My wife will tell me that all I do is talk on the phone during dinner all the time, which I wholeheartedly disagree.  It is one of my pet peeves, right up there with throwing out food and sock puppets.  I usually use the time in a restaurant or other philosophically phone-free zone as an opportunity to leave my phone charging in the car. I am rarely guilty of this atrocity.

On rare occasions, maybe once every two months, I am expecting a call that must be prioritized.  If it coincides with a meal (at home or away) I mention that I may have to take a call.  When the call comes, I excuse myself from the table and go to a lobby or non-intrusive area to take the call.  I minimize the time away from the table as best I can.

Maybe I sound like gramps here, but the day that a solar flare takes out the goddamn SmartPhone satellite I'm going to rejoice.  I'm taking my wife, dad, nieces and nephews out for dinner and we'll talk with no interruptions. Again, it could just be me.  I don't get enough time with my wife, dad or family and really do appreciate those fleeting times.

It is a question of priority, unplugging, just for a bit.  The world will be just fine-- even if people can pry themselves out of the cloud for 45 minutes.

The table is a great place to connect-- but with the person across the table rather than the person across the country.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Strawberry Genome: The Story Behind the Story

Today we have witnessed something that many of us thought we'd never see- the completed publication of the strawberry genome.  The story appeared today in Nature Genetics.

But what is the story behind the story?  As someone that was there from the beginning, I think it is helpful to recap the highlights and lowlights that did not reach the journal article. It adds much more texture to the news release and gives a much better understanding of the process of getting from crazy idea to final publication.

When next-generation sequencing came into vogue, there was immediate buzz about sequencing strawberry.  It was late 2005.  Arabidopsis and rice were fully sequenced, others were in progress and other plants were in line for genome sequencing.  At the time we solicited various government agencies for the funds to use the new 454 sequencer at the University of Florida.  We were one of the first places with the platform, so we dreamed of using it in a revolutionary way.  The tiny strawberry genome was an obvious target.  We asked for around $100,000 to start the process, soliciting mostly through earmarks and initiatives that UF put forward to the State of Florida.  Heck, it costs $200K to improve an intersection, so half of that to get an accounting of the nuts and bolts of an economically important crop plant should be of some priority.

Funds never materialized.  However, the opportunity to apply for funds from DOE-JGI came to the table.  The funding solicitation was broken down to two levels, genomes over and under 200 Mb.  Since strawberry was estimated to be just around 200Mb, it seemed to be a no brainer for the under 200 Mb solicitation.  Dr. Tom Davis from University of New Hampshire submitted the letter of intent for the January 13, 2006 deadline, days before the Plant Animal Genome meeting in San Diego.

At the Rosaceae Executive Committee annual meeting on Jan. 15 Tom announced that he had submitted the letter. The news was not well received.  The broader Rosaceae community had discussed sequencing a plant species, but interest swirled around peach and apple, mostly peach.  Those organisms, while possessing larger genomes, had good physical maps and substantial Sanger sequencing support. After a rather pointy discussion, Tom was convinced to withdraw his strawberry sequencing proposal, differing to the eventual DOE-JGI support of peach.

It was a blow to those of us that hoped that a strawberry/peach combo platter would be possible, but the broader feeling was that we would not get both, we'd get neither.  Who knows?  I'm from the camp that if you have a compelling scientific argument you have to ask if you are going to get.  There's also some merit in thinking big- and an opportunity to get two for the price of one seemed legit to me, and certainly to Tom. Oh well.

Time went on.  It was clear that there was going to be little/no support for strawberry sequencing.

At PAG in San Diego, 2008, Vladimir Shulaev and Richard Veilleux from Virginia Tech attended the Rosaceae Executive Committee meeting.   Vladimir announced that Virginia Tech had thrown support behind the idea of genome sequencing- both some financial support as well as technical and facility support.  This was the seed that was needed.  The discussion had a pure "pass-the-hat" flavor to it.  Nobody had big funds, but Vlad and Richard had a big idea.  That proved to eliminate the first major barrier to a complete sequence.

After that meeting Vladimir, Janet Slovin, Tom Davis, Todd Michael and I met in a corner of the conference hall and talked about where to get the rest of the funds needed.  We wrote a quick grant proposal to the North American Strawberry Growers Association, asking for $8000.  We brainstormed on other options.

Months later, the NASGA grant was declined, but other funds were coming in.  Most of all, Roche 454 was giving an excellent break on reagents. It was important for them that we succeeded.

Many other pools of funds materialized, including money from IASMA (italy), the USDA (J. Slovin), Virginia Tech, Driscoll's Strawberry Associates, Plant and Food Research (New Zealand), and the Dean for Research at UF.  Our strawberry breeding program pitched in as well.  Of course, many labs donated time and expertise.  The value of this contribution can not be understated, as literally thousands of human hours were committed to this project with no guarantee of reward.

Sequencing proceeded almost exclusively at Virginia Tech, with some paired ends being done at Roche 454. The runs were being performed as funds would come in and substantial coverage was brewing.  Weekly conference calls would tell us of increasing coverage.

There were skeptics.  Many in genomics, including some friends, predicted failure.  They told us that there was no way that a draft sequence could be obtained without a physical map, and especially with a purely short-read based approach.  Time would prove them incorrect.

Soon after new people joined the consortium, including many experts in genome annotation.  Mark Borodovsky, Paul Burns, Todd Mockler, Keithanne Mockaitis and others all came aboard, sequencing mRNA libraries that my lab put together from various tissues, then annotating the genome accordingly.

Assembly was facilitated by Steven Salzberg's lab at U Maryland.  Art Delcher really advanced this project forward, as Newbler itself was not providing ample collapse of contigs.  Finally advanced assemblies were reported during our conference calls.  Scaffolds were getting larger.

The genome browser came online with expert input from Ross Crowhurst at Plant and Food Research.  PFR had a huge role, with experts like Andy Allan and Roger Hellens contributing.  The final version is at

The scaffolds were anchored to the genetic linkage map by Dan Sargent at East Malling Research in the UK. This exercise was a massive undertaking and involved input from Jasper Rees' lab.  This was really important because it provided organization of the scaffolds that placed them into pseudochromosomes.

Functional annotation was performed with the expert care of Pankaj Jaiswal and his lab.  Aaron Liston assembled a chloroplast and ran some excellent phylogenetic analyses with Allan Dickerman.  These data suggest a rethinking of how poplar clusters with other taxa.

The last year was a grind.  Every 4pm we'd have a conference call with fewer and fewer members.  Even pivotal people, there from the beginning, were losing interest or were consumed with other priorities.  Things were uninteresting and heading towards collapse.  All of us were burned out and bored.

I tried to stir some momentum and interest with daily email updates, but even this futile effort ended in about a week.  It was sad that we had all of the data in one place.  No more sequencing was being done, annotation and predictions were complete and the genome browser was up and running to those with credentials.

Talk about frustration.  We had the genome sequence in a pile, but the report was a disorganized mess of fragmented ideas looking for codification.

Luckily some enthusiasm was found at PAG 2010.  Vladimir presented the genome work at a major symposium.  It looked awfully sweet on the big screen and many of us felt a sense of prime time.  It was energizing.

Todd Mockler, Todd Michael and Tom Davis met.  Later that night we had a strategy-n-pizza meeting with all of those present in the consortium.  Many of us met in person for the first time.  Our decision was that we'd assemble a "writing team", a small group to put the massive outline and verbose rantings of thirty eggheads into a publishable format.  Tom, Tia-Lynn, Richard, Aaron, Todd, Andy, Mark, Herman, Lee, Dan, and I attacked this charge. We worked fast and with purpose, submitting a pre-submission inquiry to Nature in February of 2010.

Our solicitation was declined about two weeks later.  We formatted for Nature Genetics. The slow re-submission was due to additional data coming in, and we finally submitted in June.  Reviews were back in August. High quality, appropriately critical reviews led us to reshape to a stronger version of the work and then resubmit in September, 2010.

Final acceptance didn't come until late November.  Most people, even those close to the project, don't know that we were down to the wire for addressing editorial concerns toward publication.  I have no finger nails left.  Even this last week there were serious concerns if it would be published because some of our data were not accessible online.

The work found needed final touches by an outstanding team of re-writers and proofers.  Some of those in the consortium somehow mustered up another awesome critical read. We had no warning- and a 24 hour deadline. A good paper got a final makeover.  Richard,  Keithanne, Tom D., Janet, Aaron, Todd Mockler, Lee, Herman and others gave volumes of excellent suggestions. It was a relief to see the point when every error was found at least by two independent parties, suggesting that all was in order.  The "final" galleys were returned to Nature Genetics and were a turbulent sea of yellow-highlighted adjustments.

I'll also pat myself on the back for at least a few sleepless nights near the end where my desire to see this complete gave me intense focus and drive. I wanted it done, flawlessly.

While it is beautiful to see it in print, it is more a testament to the thousands of person-hours on conference calls, Vlad and Richard's vision and persuasion in the beginning, a mega-talented team, generous funding from non-traditional sources and an expert, supportive editorial job at Nature Genetics, among many things of course.

Most of all I gained a new respect for people I already admired.  It was a joy to work on a common project, but also to endure the ups and downs together. And I apologize to those that were not acknowledged here. Add a note in the comments if you would please.

It was quite a journey, and a journey only to the beginning.  Now the real fun begins...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Natural News. Shame On You.

Natural News is a website devoted to, well, insanity.  While appearing to be folksy yet alternative, they give the worst possible medical advice (cure any cancer for $5.15 a day) and promote a non-scientific point of view, invoking every logical fallacy possible.  They draw conclusions that can't be supported and promote the most un-critical thinking I've ever seen.

I read a recent post and now I"m mad.   The post "Bill Gates Says Vaccines Can Reduce World Populations" is a lie right off the top.  In a recent TED talk Bill Gates said:

"The world today has 6.8 billion people... that's headed up to about 9 billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent."

 Of course what Gates is saying is that population is an issue, especially in the developing world, and that steps need to be taken to ensure the health of people there.  If families believe that their children will survive, they will stop having huge families.  Vaccines ensure that they will be healthy and reproductive counseling will help with family planning.

Natural News author Mike Adams sees this a different way.  Clearly the plan is to use vaccines to drive the population down. According to Adams, vaccines will be implemented to kill people slowly by inducing degenerative disease, reducing fertility (or he means fecundity) while causing miscarriages, or sensitizing a population to pandemic viruses.  To Adams, vaccines are deadly poisons that are now being aimed at reducing populations.

Shame on Adams.  Not only is his propaganda dangerous, it makes an implicit accusation that Gates is interested in genocide.  The Gates foundation is currently engaged in an expensive and almost impossible feat of eliminating polio using vaccines, much like how smallpox was eliminated.  They are traveling to remote areas, knocking on doors one by one, and administering vaccines to stop this disease where it still flourishes. Seems like that approach worked pretty well here.  Not many people walking around with polio.

Adams sees this as part of that genocidal plan.  Clearly eliminating polio is not Gates' plan, but rather it is to cause degenerative disease, reduce fertility, cause abortions and increase sensitivity to disease.

Of course Adams does not say that "health care" is part of Gates' plan for world domination and genocide in developing countries.  That would make him look like a fool.  Yet vaccines are singled out in that sentence in classic distortion of Gates' real intent.

Shame on Natural News.  The Gates Foundation is doing enormous good for developing countries, much more than the Natural News does.  To attack the motivations of the people that are driving and bankrolling these unprecedented efforts is truly shameful.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Climate Conspiracy, Part II

Today's blog follows up on the Climate Conspiracy blog posted last week.  It was based on two conversations I had with a clear climate denialist.  The first entry details a discussion where the other party has direct evidence of bias in funding for climate research... that is, until I call him on it.

Today I'll provide another example.  It is interesting to note the climate denialists follow the same exact scheme as those that deny evolution or the safety of GMO food.  There always is a conspiracy, chocked full of secrets.  There are threats and intimidation, nameless figures and warped senses of victimization.

This is the second part of my discussion with James McGaha.  Again, we had a very nice conversation where I did a lot more listening than talking.  It was a private conversation, he had no idea that I'd write here about it (neither did I), but it is a good case for understanding science denialism.

During the conversation he told me that he knew someone, that must remain nameless, that has concrete evidence that will "blow the lid off of the global warming nonsense".  This alleged figure is a scientist and has this data, data that will contradict the findings of thousands of independent laboratories worldwide, upending data generated over the last three decades.

"Why doesn't he publish it, say in Science or Nature", I said.  Certainly concrete evidence that refutes a well established scientific consensus would be publishable in the best journals.

McGaha claimed that he would publish it, but is afraid of the intimidation that will come to him if he published work that does not agree with the scientific consensus.

Of course I vehemently disagreed, as top-tier journals are where you place the best data that overturn accepted paradigms.  I then had a stellar idea.

"Ask him to write up his data into a paper for Science, then send it to me.  I'll submit it with my name on it," I said.   "I'm a scientist, I can submit that work, then I'll deal with the intimidation (said with mocking sarcasm)."

It was the perfect plan. If this scientist has the data and is just afraid, then give it to a scientist that isn't.  Then when I show up in a shallow grave with a jumbo thermometer up my heiney and a Gore-Lieberman sticker across my forehead, then they can show the world how evil the conspiracy is.  If his conclusive work gets published, then he has accomplished the mission, we change the name on the report from mine to his, and he gets a Nobel Prize, or at the very least a lifetime of interviews on Fox News

Of course, my offer fell on deaf ears, probably because there is no shadowy scientist and equally vacant solid data.

It is a lot like those that cry foul in discussions of evolution.  There always are some alleged scientists that are not allowed to publish their data that prove creation or that the earth is 6000 years old.  They are afraid of intimidation or losing status or their job.  They claim a great conspiracy to suppress the real data.

In the end, there's science and there's non-science.  If we have real data, we publish it.  Real data stand up to scrutiny and are reproducible.  Real data always win.  That's why every nut living in denial of real science has to resort to the conspiracy and intimidation story, because as long as the real data are suppressed and hidden, then they don't have to ever be tested, reproduced or independently verified.

So that was my conversation with a science denialist.  We concluded by me saying, "Science is a put-up-or-shut-up business. If you have the data, show the data, confirm and retest the data, and change the way we think.... that is the way science works."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Climate Conspiracy

A panel convened at The Amazing Meeting 8 (TAM8) to discuss the skeptical coverage of climate change.

Panelist James McGaha made a number of statements that I really disagreed with.  He's a self described climate skeptic, as any good scientist should be, only he demonstrates his patent ignorance toward the scientific method and the critical consideration of evidence.

During his time on a panel, clearly as a representative of the camp that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a figment of the imagination and a liberal conspiracy, he espoused several positions that demonstrated his clear departure from the scientific method.

Multiple times he stated, "Science is wrong".   He framed this in several ways, all of which will be more comprehensively disclosed once the TAM8 videos become available.

Science is not wrong.  Science is a tool to answer questions in an objective and powerful way.  Science is not wrong.  Science just disagrees with his non-scientific conclusions, so it must be faulty.

He also claimed that federal funding agencies do not fund or publish work that is contrary to the status quo on AGW.  He said that legitimate work that contradicts AGW is unpublished.

After his talk I stood in line to talk to him.  I asked specifics, especially about the funding for those that have data supporting a non-AGW position.  He told me that is was the NSF, JPL and NASA.  I could not disagree more, as NSF especially prefers to fund quality work that expands our understanding. The work that runs counter to the consensus is considered very favorably.

I sent him an email last week and asked for a few minutes of his time.  He graciously agreed to call me.

He called and the first thing he asked was, "Are you a believer in AGW or a skeptic".

My answer was that I accept the scientific consensus and I am a skeptic.  We were off to a unproductive start.

I mostly listened for 45 minutes.  He told me that the NSF was a major dupe of the AGW system, funding only work that agreed with the consensus on AGW.   I told him that I was interlaced reasonably well with NSF and would like to know which funding initiatives were showing such bias.  I told him that I could investigate this with the Program Managers (the people that make decisions and ultimately write the checks) from the appropriate sub-disciplines at NSF.  I was going to be in Arlington at NSF headquarters, so it would be easy to knock on some doors.

He then says, "Well it was not NSF as much as JPL and NASA".  The story changes.

... more in the next blog.  It gets weirder, but more backpedaling.