May 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Those helpful higher oil prices, Sinbad and snipers, an explosive ‘Iron Man,’ and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

THERE IS A CONTRARIAN VIEW, TO WHICH I SUBSCRIBE, THAT MAINTAINS SUSTAINED HIGHER OIL PRICES could prove to be a positive development in the end. To the extent that elevated oil prices encourage industrialized nations to shift away from fossil fuels and turn to alternatives like wind, solar and conservation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), the recent price surge could represent the proverbial blessing in disguise.

While I’m not ready to join MarketWatch columnist Chris Pummer in rooting for $8-a-gallon gas prices, the positive “green” ramifications of increased demand for oil, and pressure on prices, are hard to ignore. It will make it easier for Congress to support tax credits for alternative forms of energy, and it should spur private sector efforts for solar and wind power.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently released a report suggesting that the U.S. could derive 30% of its electricity from wind power by 2030 (up from the current 1%). For the market to work its magic, however, the cost of wind power must be competitive with that of oil and coal generated electricty.

WILL FUTURE HISTORIANS SEE COMEDIAN SINBAD’S DEBUNKING OF HILLARY CLINTON’S BOSNIAN SNIPER story as the pivotal moment in the Democratic Party 2008 presidential race? Sinbad, who had accompanied Clinton to Bosnia in 1996, refuted the New York Senator’s claim of a harrowing, corkscrew landing at the Tusla airport, and a harrowing dash across the tarmac to avoid possible snipers (“She lied. It’s on video. There’s no other side to it, because it’s on video.”) The exposure of Clinton’s fabrication helped deflect attention from Sen. Barack Obama’s emerging problems (Bittergate, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) and raised renewed questions about her own credibility at a critical juncture in the campaign.

WHEN IS A RECESSION NOT A RECESSION? It doesn’t raise confidence in practitioners in the dismal science to learn that economists can’t agree on whether the U.S. has slid into a slowdown or is suffering from a recession. Deciding where in the business cycle we are is an academic question, in one sense, but that designation carries great significance in an election year.

HAVE THE MERITOCRATIC ORIGINS OF THE SAT BEEN FORGOTTEN? As Smith College and Wake Forest University decide to abandon the SAT Reasoning Test as an admissions tool, let’s not forget that the SAT was originally established to introduce greater fairness in college admissions. A standardized test, it was thought, would allow schools to compare talented public high school students with those educated in elite private schools.

IN A GREAT HOLLYWOOD TRADITION, THE NEW FILM “IRON MAN” HAS IT BOTH WAYS, attacking the violent business of war and yet delighting in high tech pyrotechnics and massive explosions. Best moment of the movie: Jim “Mad Money” Cramer’s over-the-top cameo where he complains: “It’s a weapons company that doesn’t make weapons!”

SPEAK, MEMORY? HOW PLASTIC ARE OUR MEMORIES? Rob Walker’s Sunday New York Times Magazine article “Can a Dead Brand Live Again?” has a fascinating take on the question of human memory. Walker reviewed research on consumer’s memories of brands from the past.

The researchers found that subjects presented with a fake Disney World ad inviting them to “remember the characters of your youth: Mickey, Goofy . . . ” were significantly more likely to say they recalled that as children they had met “a favorite TV character at a theme resort” than those who didn’t see the ad. The fascinating thing was what happened when they repeated the experiment, tweaking the ads to include Bugs Bunny, who, of course, is not a Disney character at all. About 16 percent of subjects subsequently claimed that, as children, they shook hands with Bugs Bunny at a Disney theme park. Repeated fake-ad exposure apparently led to higher false-memory rates.

If the research is to be believed, then it is frighteningly easy to mold our memories of the past. Shades of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, where the past is constantly being revised.

FROM PHILIP K. DICK, SCIENCE FICTION AUTHOR EXTRAORDINAIRE COMES THIS month’s closing words of wisdom: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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