Friday, November 21, 2008

The Problem With Detroit

The U.S. auto mobile industry in an a shambles. Why?

Well, there are several contributing factors, such as higher labor costs, but there is one big reason. U.S. automakers don't make fuel-efficient vehicles that can compete.

Chronically, the automakers have planned on a short time horizon. They didn't invest over the long term, and they're unwilling to change the status quo. Ford, GM and Chrysler have too many inefficient trucks and SUV's, and their manufacturing processes take too long to retool. That's why cars like the Pontiac Grand Prix don't change body styles for 5 years or more, whle Toyota Camry gets a facelift every year or two.

Though the automakers developed hybrids, electric and fuel cell vehicles, they did so primarily as a PR move, with no intention of shipping green machines to the public unless they were absolutely forced to do so. Toyota forced their hand, and now American cars are playing a sad game of catch-up.

This myopic strategy has been ongoing for the last decade. Everyone knew the U.S. car industry was doing it.

What could have changed this? CAFE! Increasing average fleet fuel efficiency standards. The government could have forced the U.S. auto industry to build more fuel-efficent vehicles.

This would not only have made our carmakers greener, it would have made them more competitive over the long term.

Why didn't it happen? Because the Republicans insisted that it was better to let business play their game instead of having government get involved. Oh, and political contributions from the automakers might have had something to do with it, also.

It's really very simple. When you look at an industry, there are limitations in how the marketplace works. Most U.S. corporations don't have a long-term strategy. They're obsessed with short term profits and stock prices. Meanwhile, other governments write articles of legislation that force their industries to plan for the future. Consequently, their corporations are safer, greener, and more citizen friendly, and more competitive.

I'm all for free trade, but if we're going to take down trade barriers, why should the U.S. compete with one hand behind its back?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

What government can do for biomedical research

Sharon Begley in Newsweek:

These barriers to "translational" research (studies that move basic discoveries from bench to bedside) have become so daunting that scientists have a phrase for the chasm between a basic scientific discovery and a new treatment. "It's called the valley of death," says Greg Simon, president of FasterCures, a center set up by the (Michael) Milken Institute in 2003 to achieve what its name says. The valley of death is why many promising discoveries—genes linked to cancer and Parkinson's disease; biochemical pathways that ravage neurons in Lou Gehrig's disease—never move forward.

The next administration and Congress have a chance to change that, radically revamping the nation's biomedical research system by creating what proponents Richard Boxer, a urologist at the University of Miami, and Lou Weisbach, a Chicago entrepreneur, call a "center for cures" at NIH. The center would house multidisciplinary teams of biologists, chemists, technicians and others who would take a discovery such as Keirstead's and nurture it along to the point where a company is willing to put up the hundreds of millions of dollars to test it in patients. The existence of such a center would free scientists to go back to making important discoveries, not figuring out large-scale pipetting, for goodness' sake.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Skeptics Protest Bloggs Conviction

Fred Bloggs was convicted of the murder in court, yesterday. His fingerprints were found at the scene. The victim's blood and DNA were found on Bloggs's coat at his home. Also, the murder weapon was found in Bloggs's garage. Eyewitness accounts placed Bloggs at the murder scene on the day in question.

However, skeptics protested against the verdict. Protesters argued that Bloggs was a victim of as-yet-unexplained coincidences. They argued that the victim died of natural (although bizarrely bloody) causes.

Skeptics cited what they called missing evidence in the case. They argued that prosecutors failed to say precisely how Bloggs traveled to the murder scene. Though advocates for Bloggs could not produce an alibi for him, they claimed the court's judgment to be absurd if it could not say definitively whether Bloggs took the bus or rode his bike to the scene (or how many seconds late the bus was running).

Lacking evidence or alibis, protesters advanced even stranger arguments to defend Bloggs. The skeptics suggested that if a person could seem to be stabbed by an assailant in all physical respects without actually having been stabbed by an assailant, then there must be some ineffable difference between being physically stabbed by an assailant and actually being stabbed by an assailant. On this basis, they argued that it was unreasonable to convict Bloggs on the basis of physical evidence. The skeptics were elated by the cleverness of the argument, but when asked by a reporter whether the premise of the argument begged the question, the skeptics pretended they hadn't heard the reporter's question.

Overall, protesters said it had been a good day in the Bloggs case, and claimed that their demonstration was evidence that the case against Bloggs was in full retreat, and, indeed, that the practice of relying on physical evidence in court cases would soon be abandoned.