Friday, October 31, 2003

I've got some updates on the SUV-hating thing.
  • My anonymous SUV-hating lunch buddy would like to assure NIH readership that he does not like Jeeps. He disapproves of unnecessarily high gas consumption and thus, on being informed of the gas consumption numbers, disapproves of the Wrangler more than the Rav4.

  • OTOH, it appears there are some social communities where wimpy SUVs are disdained. Steve at PMStyle tells me that in certain Seattle 'burbs you'll get criticized for owning a lightweight SUV because it's wimpy, not because it's a SUV. If you care what your friends think the Rav4 is a bad choice either way.

  • A friend of a friend just bought a H2. Apparently it's already gotten keyed just sitting parked in Palo Alto.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Yesterday at lunch with three others, I said something totally inappropriate for polite company. I said I was considering buying an SUV. I immediately was criticized by two of the other three: SUVs waste gas, SUVs create more pollution, SUVs cause more accidents of all kinds, more rollovers and more deaths in accidents, and if that's not enough, people will honk at you more and 'key' your SUV. Also they asked me, why should anybody ever need to buy an SUV unless they live at the end of a hilly gravel road in wintry country -- if you need a vehicle capable of bringing around your stuff, get a station wagon or a minivan. And finally, you can't park SUVs.

The first ironic thing is that none of these issues were brought up earlier when the fourth luncheon eater said he was considering buying a Jeep Wrangler. Apparently that's free from the Yuppie taint on SUVs.

The next ironic thing is that I specifically mentioned the Rav4. This is an SUV built on the Toyota Camry (Celica?) frame, which I pointed out early in the conversation. Yet that didn't save me from the parking/gas/pollution/accident critiques. In fact it was difficult for the anti-SUVers to believe that any SUV could be small, safe or have good mileage. In fact, the Rav4 gets 24 MPG in the city and 29 in the country, according to the US government. That's better than any of the minivans, and better even than many of the station wagons listed (for example, the Audi line of station wagons gets no better than 18/25 MPG city/country, and although the VW Jetta gets good gas mileage the VW Passat gets no better than 22/31 or worse depending on the model. And also it's pretty obvious that if a Rav4 is built on a Camry frame, it's no harder to park than a Camry, and I'll assume (correct me if I'm wrong) that the pollution is no worse. BTW, the Rav4 isn't the only SUV doing this - the Honda CR-V gets similar gas mileage and is a similar size.

Next the safety critique. It's true that the media loves to criticize SUV safety, but although the headline of this CNN article is "SUVs pose danger to cars", but further in you get a more nuanced view:

The group's report, an analysis of government safety data, will show that sport utility fatality rates have fallen sharply in recent years and are now almost even with passenger cars.

But O'Neill said the analysis will also show that because of their size and weight, sport utility vehicles can cause considerable damage to smaller passenger cars in side-impact crashes.

Does the overall SUV safety record apply well to a small SUV like the Rav4? There are a few ways to look at it.

  • The theory/testing bsed scorecards from give the Rav4 a poor score on side impact but otherwise good. Typically station wagons seem to be good all around, generally safer than the Rav4. But minivans and the Jeep Wrangler get worse safety ratings here.

  • Another safety rating method is based on actual insurance claims for injuries (to vehical occupants), and vehicle damage. By this rating, the Rav4 is worse than average for injury claims but average on vehical damage. Heavier SUVs are all much better than average, protecting you from both injury and vehicle damage, but interestingly a couple light SUVs rate well (Honda CR-V again or Ford Escape). With claims-based ratings, the numbers can be biased by type of driver. So if the Rav4 attracts young dangerous drivers, while the Ford Windstar (minivan) doesn't, you'd expect the Rav4 to have more claims even if the vehicle itself is safe.

  • It seems really hard to get data about danger to other vehicles. Still, if the theoretical objection that SUVs can kill the occupants of other vehicles due to their size, high center of gravity and high bumpers, then the Rav4 should not offend too badly. Its bumper may be higher but not as high as that of a transport truck, and it's just as light as a car.

So if you care both about safety and gas economy, but care a little about driving a cool vehicle and having room for bikes too, a Rav4 or CR-V seems a reasonable compromise. If you're a good driver and wear your seatbelt you might decide that the overall safety risks in SUVs are reasonably mitigated (personally, I haven't been in an accident in 10 years). But apparently this kind of choice is socially unacceptable. You're better getting a Jeep Wrangler which gets worse mileage and has a poorer safety record but at least your friends won't shun you and strangers won't honk at you.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

I figure farm subsidies are one of the most pernicious US government programs around, causing more world-wide poverty than any other active program I can think of. Third-world countries tend to agree, and have started pushing the US and Europe to cut these subsidies in return for reduced trade barriers in other areas. So far, this pressure has had little effect, likely because elected US politicians pay more attention to campaign funding from special interest groups here, than to third-world trade negotiators. Is there anything that can be done to increase the pressure to drop these subsidies? I've done some looking, but I haven't found a charity or lobbying group yet that specifically opposes agricultural subsidies. I haven't even run across a lobbying group that opposes trade-distorting programs in general. Any pointers, anybody?
New finished work (rayon shawl) in knitting page.

Friday, October 24, 2003

This is neat. I just started reading Greg Bear's Vitals last night -- so far it's about a scientist working on extending human lifespan by tweaking genes and protein signals between bacteria. Today I ran across a news article announing that this approach, or one nearly like that, already works on worms.

One of the side topics of Vitals is the existence of widespread and aggressive opposition to lifespan-extending research. This is something I don't understand, that I've always considered to be a crazy position based on either religious belief (don't offend God) or an extreme conservatism like Rousseau's where anything remotely new, man-made or technological is worse than man's "natural state" (note this is often an environmentalist/green position, so although I call it conservatism it's not necessary what you'd think of as the right end of the political spectrum).

A last note on Vitals is that it's set in Seattle and San Francisco (so far - only 100 pages in). I'm a sucker for settings I recognize. I like Monk and Charmed especially when they show places I know.

Monday, October 20, 2003

Surgical robots are getting cooler. I heard about the da Vinci system on the radio and looked up more info. It can be used to remove tumors inside the rib cage without disrupting the ribs, or perform heart valve repair with only tiny incisions.

Just think of how much more accurate a surgeon can be on immobile objects (say, your bones or joints when a limb is immobilized during surgery). If you work on something like embroidery with your own hands it's hard to get things exactly where you want them and magnification of your view can only help so much. Consider in contrast working on an image in a program like Photoshop where you can magnify the image on screen, affecting not only your view but also the size of mouse movements required to draw a given line. These surgical assists must work a lot like a zoom function, where not only can the doctor enlarge the view of what they're looking at but also translate gross hand motions into tiny robot motions.

Another cool thing is the ability of the robot/camera system to compensate for motion far faster than a human can. In theory (I don't know if da Vinci does this yet but there are hints it does), the surgeon can select a recognizable feature inside the patient and instruct the system to compensate for motion. Then the surgeon would see a steady image from the camera, but also the robot arm performing some action would compensate for the motion with the same algorithm, also compensating for the surgeon's tremor.

The literature describes more benefits: the ability to work through much smaller holes in your outer skin (under one inch rather than 8-10 inches), which has just got to be an improvement. The claim that they can cut recovery time from 12 weeks to a day or so is an incredible deal in reduced hospital costs (decreasing surgery time, reducing hospital bed and medication usage during recovery). Since each day in a hospital costs so much, it seems easy to imagine saving 10,000 per surgery (that's only a couple weeks of hospital recovery, I estimate). Thus in 100 surgeries, possibly under one year, the machine pays for itself.

FDA approval for some types of surgery happened in 2000, and today according to the radio ad these systems are available in my area, so they're not just research any more and I'm behind the times already. I know this is gushing, but I love technology like this.

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