February 2010 Archives

Notes in February

Being that it's a slow day in the weekly cycle I should just kick back and peruse the glossy weekend magazine "How To Spend It", from the Financial Times' -- choose some baubles and get-ups to distract me, and lavish African safaris to amuse me. But a post is overdue. So some notes:

  • Runaway Cars: Toyota's "Poppycock"

    Since 2003 the National Highway and Transportation Safety Authority has been investigating safety problems with Toyota vehicles. And apparently, in an effort to "ward off" too much investigation, Toyota hired two former NHTSA workers who helped forestall action government action and inquiry into the failures. Joan Claybrook, formerly of Public Citizen and the NHTSA, spoke about the company's duplicity in dealing with the issues:

    "Toyota came in on the floor mat issue and they said this is not a safety-related defect, but we're going to do it any way. And we're going to obey all of the rules and regulations that you have for carrying out a defect, but this is not a safety-related defect. This is poppycock and they should never have tried to get away with that."

    The company has apparently tried to frame a more serious problem as a floormat issue, but Claybrook recounts that the company is not only replacing the floormats but also installing a brake override:

    "in the recall dealing with the floor mats, this is the Lexus, the Camrys, some SUV's and the Prius, they're going to not only fix the floor mat, but they're going to install a brake override, as it's called, which is a software change which if there's a conflict between the accelerator, throttle and the brake, the brake wins out and you can stop the car. Right now a lot of cars have this, but the Toyota vehicles do not. So they need to have something electronic to stop these vehicles from being runaway vehicles."

    Admission of a widespread electronic problem would apparently be detrimental to the company. As for NHTSA, the agency has apparently been dealing with leadership turnover and budget woes. The growing outside perception is that the agency has grown altogether too close to the industry it's supposed to be regulating. We previously covered the NHTSA and industry coziness when writing about the EPA and the US government's efforts to reduce unhealthy automobile emissions.

    Columbia Journalism Review summarizes media coverage of NHTSA's dealings with Toyota, and reflexively criticizes the media in general for being lax.

  • Gait

    There have been some interesting studies on gait lately. Barefoot running has become a fad and research has long indicated that running shoes increase ligament injuries, stress fractures and planter fasciitis. Now, a running shoe study by Lieberman et al in Nature "(subscription) shows that running shoes change human gait, from running toe-heel to running heel-toe. Actually, the authors distinguished three patterns, forefoot first, midfoot first, or rearfoot first. Running shoes encourage heel strike first, which differs from barefoot running. The researchers found heel strike running greatly increases resultant forces that can cause running injuries.

    In another recent study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, Cunningham et al compared the amount of energy expended when humans walk heel-toe (plantigrade), vs. toe-heel (digitgrade). The study found that it takes 53% more energy to walk on the balls of your feet, and 83% more energy to walk on your toes, than to walk heel to toe. The authors conclude that humans conserve energy by walking heel-toe (plantigrade), but don't conserve energy when they run plantigrade. They suggest evolutionary reasons that made heel-toe walking more advantageous.

    Finally, slightly different, another study, also in the Journal of Experimental Biology looked at elephant gait. The authors built an elaborate structure to measure the forces of running elephants and found that elephants use less energy and manage to bounce less (which decreased forces) by adapting a half-walk, half-run stride. This stride decreases by almost one-half the forces exerted by a running elephant compared to a running human.

    Acronym Required previously looked at energetics in Nepalese Porters carrying loads, and in human walking obese and non-obese people

  • Matchmaking for Cynics

    Acronym Required has jestingly suggested pairing people from perhaps opposing camps in the past, like an impertinent investigative reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, with a journalist contracting for a bisphenolA-is-safe lobby, as we wrote in BPA Rhetoric and Reaction; or a chemical lobbyist, with an environmental agency scientist, as we wrote "New Strategies for Bisphenol A and Chemicals?". We did this to celebrate the Obama era, as a light-hearted ode to getting everyone at the same table.

    But now an offshoot of Greenpeace has developed a far more sinister and cynical matchmaking concept in "P-Harmony", Polluter Harmony, which proposes to match various legislators and decision-makers with lobbyists. Of course there's no end to such real-life power matches, as a Google search for any combination of "sex", "sleeping with", "lobbyists", "Congressmen", "regulators", "Senators", "in bed with", etc. will attest to. But if I were to rate the site, I'd say it's ripe with potential and has some amusing detail, but is spare on the sort of fleshed-out scurrilous information people find so delicious.

  • And Speaking of Which, The EPA...

    No, not lobbyists in-bed with regulators, but websites. The new EPA website is much improved. The Obama Open Government initiative aims to "break[] down long-standing barriers between the federal government and you". To that end, you can "share your ideas" at the open government site or just peruse the evolving EPA site. It's not the first time the EPA has tried to improve public information, but this is a far more comprehensive approach than others, like this 2007 effort. I haven't delved too deep into the site, but the top pages seem also to advance the agency's control over its messaging.

  • Obama Quandries

    No one quite knows what to make of Obama. We wrote about the collective disappointment last month, and pondered whether, if people been paying attention, they'd have realized he wasn't necessarily the person they'd fabricated in their heads. We suggested people look at the varied politics of his close advisers, lmany of whom certainly aren't liberal.

    And this is exactly what people have been doing. In an article in the New York Review of Books a couple of weeks ago, Jerome Groopman looked at healthcare reform and tried to predict how it would go based on Obama's "closest advisers" on the subject, Cass Sunstein, head of OIRA, and Peter Orszag, head of OMB (OIRA is within OMB).

    Groopman distinguished Sunstein's "nudge" approach based on behavioral economics, from Orszag's "shove" approach, a different take on behavioral economics. Groopman characterized Orszag's approach as a more stringent incentive system that would not allow doctors and heathcare providers to "opt out", but would penalize them for not following government set "comparative effectiveness" mandates. But comparative effectiveness is no different than "cost effectiveness", wrote Groopman, and cost effectiveness doesn't work and won't sell. Interestingly, I've always viewed Sunstein's cost-benefit analysis to have the same shortcomings Groopman seems to loathe. But Groopman wants Sunstein's way to prevail in the healthcare debate because Sunstein offers an "opt-out".

    But perhaps healthcare won't be swayed by only two advisers but four. The Financial Times also judges the president's decisions on the views of his too small circle. FT names four key advisers, Valerie Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, Rahm Emmanuel, and David Axelrod and says that Obama needs to change up a bit to shake his governing woes. Is it realistic at all to judge the president on such small numbers of advisers? It's apparently a fun game, despite it's grounding in reality.

    As gripey as everyone is, I'm more optimistic on this President's day, thinking about the state of US governance and politics, than on the same holiday during the previous administration.

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