Sunday, February 15, 2009

Flying Cars, Flying Debris, and Flying Pigeons with Eyebeams


Amid all the current talk of infrastructure and road-building, you don’t hear many people making a case for promoting flying cars instead. As my friend Michael Mendelsohn (who also happens to be the husband of playwright Lynn Rosen, mentioned in yesterday’s entry) likes to point out, though, you have to wonder whether the creation of the Federal Highway System six decades ago may have had the unintended side effect of undermining and retarding the market for personal flying craft, which might otherwise have existed (he also notes that he pities the researcher who worked on that linked article who had to confirm the obscure factoid that Alaska is the only state in which taking off from a public road is legal).

I think it best to avoid treating questions such as whether we’ve been robbed of flying cars in a good/bad, should/should not way. The question isn’t simply whether we ought to have flying cars (though if Samuel L. Jackson continues to portray Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., in Avengers movies, I certainly hope we’ll see Fury’s flying car). Rather, process is the point: In econ, science, tradition, and biology alike, we should keep in mind that when we inhibit or encourage growth in one area, there tends to be corresponding spread or contraction in others (and in the economic arena, the market, not subsidies and regulations, tends to find the most efficient mix and the most reasonable pathways).

Systems often evolve around the impediments placed in their way, but they may be wasting energy in doing so, in ways that we do not even perceive. Stop immigrants from entering Arizona and you may just cause lots of people to waste their time rerouting to California, for instance. (And in the specific case of the Federal Highway System, there are arguments to be made that it fostered militarism, shattered ecosystems and migration patterns, and undermined local communities to boot, but we don’t have time to get into all that.)


Speaking of “routing around damage” (as the computer people say), I was saddened to hear about the almost heavy-handedly symbolic collision of a Russian satellite and an Iridium satellite (Iridium having at one time been the great hope for a completely private satellite communications network, later sold for a song and now heavily dependent on defense contracts) — but on a happier note, the suddenly-heightened problem of space debris circling the Earth reminds me of the odd old sci-fi sitcom Quark, starring Richard Benjamin as a space garbage collector. At least, I’m pretty confident I didn’t just hallucinate the series.

And speaking of hallucinations and high technology, I have only just learned that overrated and half-mad inventor Nikola Tesla believed that a friendly magical pigeon with shining eyebeams was the source of his inspiration.

But if you prefer fantasy to scientific reality anyway, I’ll leave you with these links to interviews by my friend Joel Keller, of Joss Whedon, Bob Newhart, and Eddie Izzard.

No comments: