18 November 2005

A nice Op-Ed on evolution.

There are very few conservative commentators that I can stand to read regularly. Charles Krauthammer is one of them. I usually don't agree with him when it comes to the issues (his recent article on gas prices was an exeception), but his presentation is usually reasonable in tone and his arguments well-presented. That is much, much more than I can say for the bulk of the right-wing echo chamber.

His most recent column addressed the topic of Intelligent Design. The conclusion of the article is an absolutely beautiful description of why evolution is compatible with a theistic worldview:
How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule, pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of Education, too.

17 November 2005

The laws of peer review:

Law Number One: For any manuscript or proposal subjected to peer-review, the minimum number of comments (C) can be determined using the following equation:
C = NR+1

where N is equal to the number of paragraphs in your manuscript, and R is equal to the number of reviewers.

Law Number Two: The only point of agreement shared by all of the reviewers will be that you are somehow wrong.

16 November 2005

Plan B, the FDA, and "controversial"

As many of you probably know, the Government Accountability Office released a report yesterday outlining their conclusions following an investigation into the FDA's initial decision to deny Over-The-Counter (OTC) status to the emergency contraceptive "Plan B". The GAO concluded that the decision to deny approval for OTC sales of the drug was unusual for several different reasons. The involvement of high-level FDA officials was unusual, as were reports that the decision to deny approval was made prior to the conclusion of the review process. The decision to overrule lower-level FDA offices was unusual, and the justification that was used in denying approval was "novel and did not follow FDA's traditional practices" (GAO report, page 1).

All of those things are troubling, all of them indicate a level of political involvement in a medical decision that is totally unacceptable, and all of them demand further investigation, particularly in light of the foot dragging that is still going on at the FDA.

Here's the part of the GAO report that I find most troubling:
In its comments on a draft of this report, FDA disagreed with three of our findings. First, FDA disagreed with our finding that the involvement of high-level management in the Plan B decision was unusual because their involvement is likely in high-profile and controversial regulatory decisions. (p.6)

The Plan B OTC request was controversial - politically controversial. It was not scientifically controversial. The joint advisory committee and lower ranking FDA officials from three offices that normally would have had the final say on approving the application were all in agreement that the application should be approved. In such cases, it is the job of the FDA management to insulate the approval process from political pressure. It is not their job to bow to it.

Another couple of weeks, another Tangled Bank...

...and I forgot to submit something again. Damn. That's the downside to this whole grad school thing. You can goof off for a while, and you can try to evade doing real work, but sooner or later something is going to catch your interest, and you'll find yourself actually working. Worse yet, you'll find yourself actually forgetting about your favorite ways to goof off.

Anyway, the latest Tangled Bank is up over at Flags and Lollipops. Enjoy.

14 November 2005

A quick note on Katrina

A professor in my department, Bob Kinzie, just forwarded me an interesting quote from Simon Winchester's book on the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The contrast between this and what happened in New Orleans after Katrina is really quite pitiful:
"Just after 5 in the morning of April 18, 1906, a massive tremor picked up San Francisco and shook it like a rug. Within 90 minutes, solders had surrounded the Hall of Justice. By midnight, aid had arrived from Los Angeles. And by 4 AM the next morning, Washington had authorized every possible assistance, dispatching solders, rations and the longest hospital train ever assembled. All this had been done be telegraph and Morse code."

Is it really too much to expect for the Federal Government to be no worse at responding to disasters now than they were 99 years ago?

13 November 2005

Applications of Evolution 1a - Hopelessly Watching Extinction

A few months ago, I wrote an article on this blog about the plight of a genus of trees out here in paradise that are being decimated by an accidentally introduced wasp. The trees targeted by the wasps include several species of trees from the genus Erythrina, which includes a species that is unique to Hawaii - the Wiliwili (Erythrina sanwichensis). This tree has a great deal of cultural significance to native Hawaiians, who have traditionally made use of the wood in many areas of their culture.

Just to review, the parasitoid wasp attacking the trees was first spotted back in April in Manoa valley, but has since spread to all of the main Hawaiian Islands. It attacks the trees by laying eggs in the leaf tissues, creating a bump in the leaf called a "gall," which looks like this:

Here's a close-up: The holes that can be seen on the leaf to the right are emergence holes, where adult wasps have emerged from the leaf after maturing.

Too many galls on the same leaf can kill the leaf, and too many dead leaves can kill the tree. These gall wasps can also invade the leaves just as they are starting to open. When this happens, the leaves do not develop normally, but instead form twisted, malformed masses of tissue, like this:

If the wasps are still around once all of the leaves are dead, they can apparently continue this process as long as the tree is able to continue to attempt to put out new leaves:

At the beginning of October, I took pictures of trees from a number of Erythrina species that are found around campus, and on a couple of other places on Oahu. The pictures are not pretty. I've waited this long to post them because I was holding out hope that the leaves might still come back - the trees of this genus are deciduous, and some drop their leaves during the summer. They have not. All of them look worse now than they did when I took the pictures.

There are "before" pictures available for a couple of the same trees that I photographed, via Dr. Gerry Carr's website at UH. As you can see, the differences are drastic:

The two pictures above are of a "Column Tree" (Erythrina sp.). Both pictures are of the same tree, one of three planted in front of Webster Hall on the UH Manoa campus. All three of those trees have been decimated, and I have seen other trees of this species in the same shape at Hickam Air Force Base.

The three trees in this picture are all Wiliwili trees (Erythrina sandwichensis). As you can see, they have been hammered as hard as the column trees. I've seen Wiliwili in this condition as far as the Leeward Coast. The area on the leeward coast is a good 20 miles away from Manoa, as the wasp flies, and the insects have only been known to be on the island for about six months. That's a terrifying rate of spread. If it continues, the extinction of the Wiliwili is all but inevitable.