Dynamist Blog

The Glamour of Star Trek

FuturebeginsParamount recently released the poster for the new Star Trek movie, opening May 8. The black and white composition and almost abstract suggestion of speed make an interesting contrast to the clear forms and primary colors of the original show.

Long-time DG readers may remember this quotation, comparing James Bond and Mr. Spock, from Jeff Greenwald's 1999 book Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth. Like Ayn Rand's novels, Star Trek traffics in glamour that appeals to people who generally think they're immune to such frivolous nonsense (and, conversely, whose obsessions seem decidedly unglamorous to most of the fashion crowd). Greenwald's book has a number of good passages that deal with Star Trek's glamour, without using the word. Here's one of the best, which follows his wife's insight that the book "is about longing," the subject of all glamour:

Read the rest--and more interesting posts, by me and others--at DeepGlamour.net.

Policy Hubris, the Great Moderation, and the Roots of the Current Unpleasantness

My latest Atlantic column considers how the Fed's misunderstanding of the "Great Moderation" may have fed asset bubbles, leading to what Professor Postrel calls the Current Unpleasantness. An excerpt:

But containing inflation and eliminating, or noticeably dampening, economic downturns are two entirely different things. Congratulating policy makers for "the virtual disappearance of the business cycle" oversteps the evidence and encourages the hubris that fostered the current crisis and could make recovery more difficult. The conventional explanation for the Great Moderation gives too much credit to easily identifiable economic policy makers—"I feel the contribution of good policy cannot be overstated," said Romer—and too little to all those anonymous managers and workers whose everyday actions get summarized in the aggregate statistics that Fed economists watch so closely.

Research published in journals like the American Economic Review, dating back to a 2000 article by Margaret McConnell of the New York Fed and Gabriel Perez-Quiros of the European Central Bank, tells a different story. This line of research says that good Fed policy was necessary but not sufficient, that the business cycle never disappeared, and that most of the Great Moderation emerged not from deliberate government policy but from changes in business practices that occurred for competitive reasons having nothing to do with macroeconomic goals.

It's a fairly complex piece, so please read the whole thing.

Breaking the Social Compact

I love California, but middle-class people really do get a lot more for their tax dollars in Texas. Even the LAT has noticed. (Yes, the article is an oldie--but a goodie.)

The university system is still significantly better in California, but the roads are much better in Texas, as are (in general) the public schools. As for the fiscal maw that is the California prison system, it's not as though Texas is soft on crime.

Reviewing Apple Aesthetics--and Finding Them Wanting

After five plan revisions and two years, Apple finally has permission to build a store in the District of Columbia. You know Apple, famous for its insensitivity to aesthetics...

Other businesses were not so succesful. (Check out the reaction to Georgetown Cupcake's windows.) Apple is lucky the Georgetown authorities even let them sell those newfangled machines in their historic neighborhood. Mac users are rejoicing.

Wanted: Better Measurement

The Fraser Institute is sponsoring an essay contest on "Excellence in the Pursuit of Measurement," with a top prize of $1,000 (Canadian) and five second-place prizes of $500 (Canadian), "for identifying a vital issue that is either not being measured, or is being measured inappropriately." Entries can either be short essays (500-600 words) or one-minute videos. The deadline is May 15, 2009. Send submissions to measure.it-AT-fraserinstitute.org. Full contest details here.

I find the video alternative interesting, as one more example of how dominant video story telling has become as technological costs have dropped. When will high schools start teaching "video composition" as a required course?

The Control of Time

China is roughly the width of the U.S. but has only one time zone. In today's LAT piece Barbara Demick reports on how ethnic minority Uighurs in China's far west use their own time zone, two hours earlier than the official one, to subtly protest Beijing's dominance.

Local people have strangely adjusted.

"Confusing? Not confusing at all! You can ask anybody how easy it is to convert between Beijing time and the local time," insisted a Chinese woman working at the Kashgar inter-city bus station, which is running on local time until April 1 and then switching over. "We use Beijing time in every aspect of our lives. It is only our comrades, the ethnic minorities, who use their local time."

Ali Tash, a 28-year-old tour guide, said it's really quite simple. Pointing at empty sofas in a hotel lobby, he explained how he would set up a hypothetical meeting with a Chinese friend and a Uighur friend. "So I say to the Chinese guy, come at 4 o'clock, and to the Uighur guy, come at 2 o'clock, and then everybody will be there the same time. No problem."

Such adjustments shouldn't seem "strange" to a reporter for a West Coast paper, since Pacific Coasters are forever making similar adjustments to accommodate the dominant East. Whoever gets up first, generally sets the day's agenda. I've been known to suggest the the U.S. would be better off if everyone were on Central time. And I'm currently enjoying being six hours ahead of the East, seven hours before Italy switched from "solar time" ("ora solare") to the aptly named "legal time" ("ora legale") this past weekend.

Cancer Drugs vs. The One Best Way

In my March Atlantic column I used my personal experience with breast cancer to illustrate broader concerns about the development and availability of cancer drugs. Here's the beginning:

If I lived in New Zealand, I'd be dead.

That's the lead my editor wanted me to write, and I have to admit it's great. Alas (for this column, at least), it's not exactly true. But neither is it false. And the ways in which it's partly true matter greatly, not just to me or to New Zealanders but to anyone who might get cancer or care about someone who does.

The American health-care system may be a crazy mess, but it is the prime mover in the global ecology of medical treatment, creating the world's biggest market for new drugs and devices. Even as we argue about whether or how our health-care system should change, most Americans take for granted our access to the best available cancer treatments — including the one that arguably saved my life.

As readers of The Future and Its Enemies know, I have long-standing concerns about the threats to innovation posed by centralized technocracy. I'm the fortunate beneficiary of an unusually dramatic advance against cancer--one developed because of the determination of a relatively obscure academic, with basic research largely funded by Revlon philanthropy and development done by a young and somewhat shaky biotech company. (The story is told in detail in Robert Bazell's book Her-2: The Making of Herceptin, a Revolutionary Treatment for Breast Cancer.) Herceptin is the sort of breakthrough that would never have emerged from a purely centralized system.

The column came out during the debate over "comparative effectiveness" research funding in the stimulus bill. Such research can provide valuable information within a competitive system. Within the context of a nationalized health system, however, such information is often used to justify rigid rationing schemes that stifle technological progress and hamper individualized treatment. Few of the readers who objected to the column made sophisticated arguments about comparative effectiveness, however. Most were just angry that The Atlantic had printed a piece implicitly questioning single-payer "universal" systems--and they wrote a lot of letters. In a new piece on The Atlantic's website, I respond to some of the most common arguments.

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