Why magic is overrated

by on February 9, 2017 at 2:10 am in Economics, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

A few days ago you all were speculating about which fictional objects you might wish to own.  I was struck by how the more extravagant answers seemed to fail, and partly because of what my early teacher Ludwig Lachmann called “the complementarity of capital.”

Say you had a time machine to visit the past.  Sounds like fun, right?  But consider the violence in earlier eras, trying to understand their languages, or avoiding nasty germs and infections.  How can you return to the current day without a risk of bringing back a plague that will kill many people?  Markets have not provided the complementary goods to make these trips work.

How about a pen that creates any object you might try to draw with it?  Expect a knock on the door from McLean, or if you are less lucky some polonium in your Product 19.  I wonder for how long you could keep such a device secret, and do you always know when there is CCTV?  I wonder for how long you could stay alive.

A transporter might kill you through the act of copying you, but that aside how would you know you are not putting yourself into moving traffic or a lake?  What kind of monitoring stations do you hope to make use of?  How many cultures would attack the arriving visitor for witchcraft?  Maybe there is a way to plop down in open fields only, but at that point you might wish to consider a business class ticket along with checked bag.

Even owning something as simple as the Mona Lisa would be problematic.  You would have to protect it and install climate control — who is going to pay for that?  How might they rezone your house?  Or would you never ever tell anyone, and thus keep all your friends at a distance?  For what gain, ultimately?

Having one extra thing is devilishly hard to make extremely valuable, even if you are allowed to invent something that doesn’t exist or violate the physical laws of our universe.  The real gains in this world are from cooperation and networks of support, and having something unique doesn’t much plug you into those.  In other words, trying to bypass market evolution isn’t nearly as powerful as you might think.

1 steveslr February 9, 2017 at 2:25 am

I’d like to own Kip’s spacesuit Oscar from Heinlein’s “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.”

But then I’d give the spacesuit to some young man who was handy with tools who really wanted to own a spacesuit he could fix up.

2 rluser February 9, 2017 at 5:46 am

Along those lines, the twin’s ship in Rocket Ship Galileo would be nice. We still aren’t there (but getting closer). Let’s skip the flat cats.

3 rluser February 9, 2017 at 5:47 am

Ooops. The Rolling Stones. My bad

4 too hot for MR February 9, 2017 at 2:37 am

Offer silly hypothetical, then browbeat audience for indulging silly hypothetical.

Let that be a lesson to us.

5 Pipsterate February 9, 2017 at 3:41 am

I didn’t comment in that thread, so. . . Good for me, I guess?

Anyway, the best answer was “The Fountain of Youth”, which seems like it would be both profitable and fun to own.

6 Sam the Sham February 9, 2017 at 6:07 am

And furthermore, slip an even more extreme hypothetical at the end of it. Worried about medieval violence? It wasn’t like, I dunno, Mad Max back then. Commerce doesn’t thrive where theft and violence are left unpunished, and law-and-order is not something we invented in the last 50 years. Just head over to the nearest monastery with your plans for a steam engine, and start the industrial revolution 300 years earlier. Be patient with the monks as you work past the language barriers.. MAYBE you pick up some disease, but then, maybe you will by visiting Mexico in the modern era, too.

I don’t understand the point of Tyler’s post other than to make him look unimaginative, unsporting, AND wrong. Mission accomplished, I guess?

7 john February 9, 2017 at 12:18 pm

While I’m now wondering if the original query was part one in TC;s mind all along with this as the part two follow I think his point here is pretty clear.

Many of the selections were only considered on the “cool” factor rather than what would it really mean and be like to have “X”. I suspect most, like me, didn’t do a deep dive into a some analysis about what X would fit into reality and probably just accepted the story line from the fiction where X was presented to us. To me he’s basically just saying “Now you have your toy, what are the unintended consequences you didn’t consider?” or perhaps, “What might the unintended consequences be and how might that change your choice?”

8 Jane the Actuary February 9, 2017 at 3:24 pm

Duh – just learn Latin. Sure, spoken Latin had evolved by then into French, Spanish, etc., so you might need to write down what you wanted to say, but it was, after all, the original lingua franca.

9 dearieme February 9, 2017 at 8:04 am

I’d settle for Excalibur.

10 Melmoth February 9, 2017 at 8:29 am

I’d settle for Excalibur still in the stone. Imagine how much you could make offering egotistic billionaires the chance of a tug?

11 Daniel Weber February 9, 2017 at 10:53 am

Wrong sword.

12 dearieme February 9, 2017 at 12:59 pm

Opinions differ on that. Though why anyone would bother arguing over whether two mythical swords were one and the same beats me.

13 dearieme February 9, 2017 at 12:57 pm

“Imagine how much you could make offering egotistic billionaires the chance of a tug?” Oooooh, saucy!

14 too hot for MR February 9, 2017 at 2:33 pm

That market is well established.

15 Wayne H February 9, 2017 at 2:46 am

I argue for Mr Fusion from Back to the Future. Energy from garbage. Would be happy to share the technology because driving energy cost to near zero frees up a lot of humanities resources for other and hopefully better uses.

16 So Much For Subtlety February 9, 2017 at 4:01 am

But then Amory Lovins would probably sneak in to your home and smother you while you sleep.

17 rluser February 9, 2017 at 5:56 am

And we have yet to complete Yucca Mountain

18 mulp February 9, 2017 at 2:46 pm

Yucca mountain is so extremely stupid: bury 97% of the enriched uranium and plutonium fuel where is can never be used to generate power.

Why? Because turning millions of acres of land into wasteland is cheaper because the land is taken from the American people for free and the entire process of creating wasteland is funded by taxpayers in various subsidies to the nuclear power industry overseen by government central planners.

On the latter, paying workers to build the machines that turn 3% of fuel into waste composed of 3% neutron absorbers and 97% good fuel is going to be charged to electric customers in the Southeast by the States reversing the intent of PURPA, and reinstating utility work-in-progress rate charges on utility owned power generating capital. But those machines that central planners approve and charge rate payers for over the typical decade of construction, require government funded fuel production selling fuel below cost, and then paying central planners below cost fees to store the 97% good fuel as waste.

If the funding for Yucca Mountain had been invested in building new liquid metal or molten salt burning dissolved nuclear reactors producing only low level waste (half life less than a month) and had government central planners oversee building 1000 such reactors in the US producing heat that utilities and industry buy at cost and convert to product they sell for profit. This would be the refined model conservatives love: the French government central planners energy sector of DeGaul and Pierre Messmer.

19 Cliff February 9, 2017 at 11:24 pm

Yes, government “central planning” what would occur without government regulation is better than government “central planning” the opposite- no nuclear power at all.

20 Bill February 10, 2017 at 3:24 pm

“new liquid metal or molten salt burning dissolved nuclear reactors ”

Apropos the article, I feel like you’re missing the point entirely. Pressurized water reactors are the predominate technology because of the large market in complimentary goods and services. The U.S. government wouldn’t just have to invest in the new reactor systems, it’d have to invest in building that complimentary market. Government scientists and subsidized scientists are pretty good at developing technology, especially when there’s a concrete goal–like solving the last few remaining problems with the alternative fission technologu. They’re not nearly as good at building viable markets.

The current state of affairs is a path dependent outcome. There’s no going back, unfortunately, to a time where it’d be easy to introduce new, commercially viable fission technology.

Technology is even more beguiling than magic, especially when it’s something we know with certainty is feasible. But you seriously take market dynamics into consideration, reality usually comes crashing back.

I think the solar and wind energy proponents will win the day. Not because solar and wind are superior in a law of thermodynamics sort of way. And not because of excessive government regulation. But merely because those are new, fast growing markets where it’s easy to iterate the technology. The return of nuclear might have to wait until those markets mature and it becomes more difficult to eke out marginal efficiency gains because of the rigid market in complimentary goods and services it will rest upon.

21 CapTVK February 9, 2017 at 2:32 pm

You would have been prevented by Doc Emmet Brown. He had to intervene and erase the future witnessed in Back to the Future II as the various inventions (including mr Fusion) of that time led to mass obesity and Griff Tannen triggering a nuclear holocaust.

And that folks, is why we still don’t have hover boards.

See: Doc Brown in the 2015 direct-to-video short film “Doc Brown Saves the World”

22 Doug February 9, 2017 at 2:49 am

This is the least child-like blog post of all time.

23 Hoover February 9, 2017 at 3:22 am

I agree. To offer scope for a flight of imagination, then to squash it with practical objections such as “you might be attacked if you travel back to medieval times” seems like a bait and switch.

24 So Much For Subtlety February 9, 2017 at 3:59 am

Sure. It would be much better to point out the risks of killing your great-great-great-grandfather in self-defense and then getting your great-great-great-great-grandmother pregnant during the after-killing celebrations.

At least that is how all the cool kids do it.

25 Perceval "piggy" Sykes-Corbett February 9, 2017 at 4:05 am

Oedipus was not cool.

I say this with the glib confidence of man who took thirds in Greats.

26 So Much For Subtlety February 9, 2017 at 4:28 am

Oh come on. Oxford doesn’t give Thirds any more. No gentlemen go there.

While I have to admit that fat body extremities aren’t cool, we are talking about a man who was written about by Pindar, Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Ovid, Seneca and Julius Caesar. From which we can safely conclude that ancient Greeks (and the odd Roman) had the hots for their mothers and that actually he must have been pretty damn cool. I would give anything for a time machine so I could go back and appear in one of their plays. Ovid by choice.

27 Thiago Ribeiro February 9, 2017 at 5:20 am

I don’t think so, the general idea seemed more like, “what would happen in the real world if you got such a fictional item?” Evidently one is free to rhink about what would happen if such and such reality constrains were eliminated, too, but it is not what he asked. If every rich man in our world were murdered, wishing having Scrooge Mcducks fortune would be suicide, unless one also asked for Gyro Gearloose’s inventions, that could keep the probable aggressors at bay.

28 Michael S February 9, 2017 at 3:06 am

Well, that sure sucked all the fun out of the thought experiment.

29 dan1111 February 10, 2017 at 7:53 am

I thought it made it fun.

30 prior_test2 February 9, 2017 at 3:12 am

‘Why magic is overrated’

Especially in light of this observation – ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ Arthur C. Clarke, 1973 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke's_three_laws

Changing just a couple of words in the following actually describes the world we inhabit, particularly those living in the U.S. – ‘Say you had a machine to visit a new continent. Sounds like fun, right? But consider the violence in other areas, trying to understand their languages, or avoiding nasty germs and infections. How can you return to your home without a risk of bringing back a plague that will kill many people?’

‘Having one extra thing is devilishly hard to make extremely valuable’

The Fountain of Youth would seem to be an example of how extremely facile this perspective is in terms of the original post.

31 john February 9, 2017 at 12:28 pm

My objection to the “hard to make extremely valuable” is that was never part of the selection criteria. Sure, that’s why some might want what they suggested but I suspect for others it was merely the novelty/coolness part or the idea that while the object itself might be “extremely valuable” it allowed one to make real improvements in their own life that may well lead to greater wealth or prosperity for them and those they care about. Value is like beauty in this context I suggest.

32 Joe February 9, 2017 at 3:45 am

I would like to have had a Fender bass (and Bassman amp, of course) back in the 30’s. I would of rocked.

33 Perceval "piggy" Sykes-Corbett February 9, 2017 at 3:54 am

In case anyone wanted to know how abnormal, aspergery people become trolls.

34 Perceval "piggy" Sykes-Corbett February 9, 2017 at 4:01 am

I propose a test:

Send person A back to 1240 AD or some other medieval period year five times. Send person B forward to libertarian open borders utopia five times- the person who contracts leprosy least often wins.

35 Sam the Sham February 9, 2017 at 6:10 am

If I understand the actual libertarian open borders proposal, it comes with zero welfare state (and possibly without birthright citizenship). I’d be OK with those open borders. Until then, it’s fine to be very fussy who we let in. For those who want open borders, I’ll look to the welfare system and say – you go first.

36 Robert Cosgrave February 9, 2017 at 4:23 am

All new inventions are fictional, in effect, until they achieve a certain level of market adoption. Many very good ideas flop for exactly the reasons you outlined – the networks and enabling technologies are absent.

37 Kerokan February 9, 2017 at 4:33 am

Connie Willis’ sci-fi novel “Doomsday Book” and the “Deathly Hallows” story in Harry Potter are good explorations of these trade-offs.

38 Peter February 9, 2017 at 5:31 am

I see you take the “hard sci-fi” approach to fantasy (hard fantasy?). Reminds me of this post by Eliezer Yudkowsky: http://lesswrong.com/lw/hq/universal_fire/

39 Veobaum February 9, 2017 at 8:03 am

That was awesome.

40 The Other Jim February 9, 2017 at 8:41 am

Agreed. Many thanks!

41 john February 9, 2017 at 12:37 pm

Third on this one but “If your map breaks into four pieces for easy storage, it doesn’t mean the territory is also broken into disconnected parts.” is a line that some fantasy author really needs to pick up on (if someone has not already).

42 dan1111 February 10, 2017 at 7:50 am


43 Jeff R February 9, 2017 at 5:55 am

A big part of the disease problem back in the day was, I believe, that no one really understood how they spread, lacking knowledge of germs. You as a time traveller won’t have that problem.

As for being accused of witchcraft, I think it’s just as likely that you could perform a miracle or two and they’d worship you as a God.

44 john February 9, 2017 at 12:41 pm

Not really. It’s about what’s in the environment and what you’re immune system is currently aware of and ready to defend against. If one new think pops up it’s not too overwhelming for your body. If just able everything is different your system is overwhelmed — your immune capital is not complementary with the disease environment.

Which does then beg the question, were the disease then THAT different from today?

BTW, while we’re on the fantasy-reality and what happens kick. There was a good story about a caveman that was found is a preserved state and was regenerated. He lived a few months and then died of the common cold — but had great natural immunities to a lot of things that would kill us today.

45 Jonny B February 9, 2017 at 6:00 am

But Tyler, your concerns are all easy to address! Let’s take them one by one:

Q: Say you had a time machine to visit the past. Sounds like fun, right? But consider the violence in earlier eras, trying to understand their languages, or avoiding nasty germs and infections. How can you return to the current day without a risk of bringing back a plague that will kill many people? Markets have not provided the complementary goods to make these trips work.

A: Who needs complementary goods when they are a part of the package? I would have a time machine that comes with a force field against germs, a universal translator, and a replicator to generate whatever items needed to appease or ward off physical threats.

Q: How about a pen that creates any object you might try to draw with it? Expect a knock on the door from McLean, or if you are less lucky some polonium in your Product 19. I wonder for how long you could keep such a device secret, and do you always know when there is CCTV? I wonder for how long you could stay alive

A: My magic pen would come with a guarantee against all these things. Remember: it’s magic!

Q: A transporter might kill you through the act of copying you, but that aside how would you know you are not putting yourself into moving traffic or a lake?’

A: On killing me: I could just accept that the sense of continuity of existence is good enough and that the convenience is worth it. But really I’d just make sure to get a transporter that doesn’t kill me. My transporter uses the universal maps that come with it, and it has the same attachments as the time machine. Come to think of it, the time machine and transporter would be one device that fits neatly in my pocket. My toes get cold easily so there’d be something for that too.

Q: Even owning something as simple as the Mona Lisa would be problematic. You would have to protect it and install climate control — who is going to pay for that? How might they rezone your house? Or would you never ever tell anyone, and thus keep all your friends at a distance? For what gain, ultimately?

A: The Mona Lisa is not a fictional object, and the practicalities of owning a famous art piece fall outside the scope of this exercise.

46 Sam the Sham February 9, 2017 at 6:39 am

I was going to say Tyler doesn’t understand magic, BUT, while you’re technically correct (the best sort of correct!), magic is magic and can magic through any difficulty, I figure this is a good a post as any to reply with…

historically magic has conditions, at least the better-written magic. I will spin straw into golden thread IF I take your firstborn child. You may live in the enchanted palace IF you never say the word ‘cow’. The Monkey’s Paw/Aladdin’s Lamp both grant wishes terribly literally. And these conditions are not cause-and-effect, but merely prices to be paid. IF you march around Jericho 7 times and blow the horns, the walls will fall. That is not saying that the marching and blowing of horns collapsed the walls, but merely you’ve fulfilled your end of the bargain, now God will do his end. There is a logic to magic and to the magic realm – if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, then Cinderella MUST be younger than the Ugly Sisters, and no amount of magic makes that go away. If Jack the Giant-Slayer is the son of a miller, then a miller is the father of Jack. Magic is actually quite logical in this sense. It merely divorces the assumption of cause and effect – which is not a weakness. Science only talks about weird repetitions, but it is still assumption. IF I drop the apple, then the apple will fall. It starts to seem like magic, and the mundane becomes marvelous. I can rely on that magic just as Harry Potter relied on the Cloak of Invisibility, but I should appreciate the constancy of the both.

47 Jonny B February 9, 2017 at 1:01 pm

point well made . . . still, my monkey’s paw knows me better than that, and doesn’t feel the need to drive a good story plot.

48 Tim Worstall February 9, 2017 at 6:13 am

“How can you return to the current day without a risk of bringing back a plague that will kill many people?”

Other way around, we would be carrying back the modern mutations of ‘flu, colds, measles, polio and all the rest. Be the Colombian Exchange all over again.

49 Jay February 9, 2017 at 10:41 am

Anyone who has served “in theater” in the armed forces (of the US) is probably vaccinated against all the old bugs. I distinctly recall being vaccinated against bubonic plague and anthrax to name a couple. And almost everyone of a certain age bears the smallpox vaccination scar on one shoulder. It could work!

50 Alan February 9, 2017 at 6:30 am

“The real gains in this world are from cooperation and networks of support”

Is Tyler promoting socialism now? Or does he think that the politeness necessitated by the threat of sudden death in the libertarian paradise will evolve into networks of support?

51 The Other Jim February 9, 2017 at 8:43 am

Don’t pull a Krugman and insist that socialism is just another word for sharing or coordination.

That’s not what Tyler is saying.

Never go Full Krugman.

52 Borjigid February 9, 2017 at 9:31 am


Voluntary cooperation is a thing.

53 RustySynapses February 9, 2017 at 3:52 pm

Kudos for “Never go Full Krugman” (assuming that’s an original Tropic Thunder riff).

54 Daniel Weber February 9, 2017 at 11:01 am

Someone mentioned the Enterprise. Anyone who had a ship from Star Trek, or even a shuttlecraft, could just live in it all the time. If you have to leave, make it known — even if not true — that it is programmed to wreck destruction on major governments if you are murdered, and they will make sure you are safe.

55 Thiago Ribeiro February 9, 2017 at 11:24 am

In the Star Trek Universe, Earth vessels have had incorporated into them a substance known as… corbomite. It is a material and a device which prevents attack on us. If any destructive energy touches our vessel, a reverse reaction of equal strength is created, destroying the attacker. One can’t tell governments one carries a lot of corbomite at one’s pockets.

56 john February 9, 2017 at 12:45 pm

Unlikely. If interested get Lachmann’s “The Structure of Capital” and you’ll see what TC is getting at.

57 chuck martel February 9, 2017 at 6:32 am

The concept of time travel is silly and closely related to the belief in linear time, a cultural construct that fits in nicely with the modern idea of time as a commodity.

58 choncan February 9, 2017 at 7:18 am

How about a new MR website template that eliminated the comments? That’s my magic wish. If that’s too much, then maybe I can, by magic, install editable URL fields in the browsers of this same set of cool guys who read and comment on every post to point out how stupid and bad it is.

59 JWatts February 9, 2017 at 9:08 am

“How about a new MR website template that eliminated the comments? ”

Or you could just not read the comments.

60 Anonymous February 9, 2017 at 7:45 am

I achieve the same by skipping over the comments of those , who by past experience, I don’t want to read . Assuming ” I hate this blog and don’t want to waste my time commenting on the nonsense here but am constrained to comment pointing out how much nonsense there is in the posts” doesn’t switch handles on their next comment.

61 TerriW February 9, 2017 at 7:47 am

There was a lovely late episode of the X-Files that also wished to crush all your hopes and dreams in this fashion: “Je Souhaite.”

Just ask the poor guy who thought it’d be a good idea to wish for a boat (can’t afford a slip for it; still have to pay taxes on it!), let alone the horrible repurcussions of the more magical wishes (cluminating in the horrifying implications of “world peace.”)

62 Melmoth February 9, 2017 at 8:34 am

I remember that episode. I thought the world peace wish was clever.

63 Anonymous February 9, 2017 at 7:48 am

“An object in possession seldom retains the same charm that it had in pursuit.”
Pliny the Elder.

64 Thiago Ribeiro February 9, 2017 at 8:11 am

In fact he was plagiarizing Mr. Spock: “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting.” A Brazilian wrjter also made thia point in one of his most famous works.

65 Sam the Sham February 9, 2017 at 8:25 am

Bandarra is good to read, but it’s better to read it in the original Klingon.

66 Thiago Ribeiro February 9, 2017 at 10:29 am

There was no Klingon original. Bandarra wrote in Old Portuguese. You may be thinking about Shakespeare and his works in the original Portuguese.

Here, a statue the Portuguese people built portraying Prophet Bandarra: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Estátua_do_profeta_Bandarra_-_Trancoso_(Portugal).jpg

67 rayward February 9, 2017 at 7:48 am

It could be Cowen baiting readers to reveal just how much they are motivated by wishful thinking, since wishful thinking has spread throughout the land like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

68 Ray Lopez February 9, 2017 at 8:03 am

Small point: true long-term residents of DC know that “McLean, VA” is in fact written with a small L. I think it’s “Mclean, VA”, like Mr. Clean without the R and small c. I could be wrong, but since my family’s been here since Eisenhower, and profited from it (we’re in the 1%, minimum net worth $8.6M), I would bet I’m right. How long has TC been here? Pfft, since the late 1980s? Greenhorn.

69 No Nym February 9, 2017 at 8:08 am

If you’re interested in teleportation via copy machine, check out the movie The Illusionist.

70 Sanjay February 9, 2017 at 8:09 am

Jesus, you’re no fun.

71 Cliff February 9, 2017 at 8:18 am

Interesting point, on the previous thread I wanted something that would double the size of my penis to 2 inches but now I realise that that would make me the most well-endowed man living in my northern Virginia neighbourhood. This might cause me to get a lot of attention from the housewives around here and their husbands would be upset and kick my ass. I guess magic DOES have consequences.

72 Haha February 9, 2017 at 12:31 pm

If you were ever in the same bar and I recognized you, I’d buy you a nice beer.

73 Turkey Vulture February 9, 2017 at 12:44 pm

Leaning against the wall, sipping a beer, staring across the urinals. “I’m just looking for Cliff” he repeats.

74 holy smokes February 9, 2017 at 2:39 pm

You guys are killing it today.

75 Perovskite February 9, 2017 at 8:29 am

I think this is….wrong….and pretty clearly so….at least whjen you remove the contect of “one thing”.

Having rifles was a huge military advantage with huge consequnences against populations without them. There are many examples of returns to innovation in trhe military realm.

Returns to investments currently are much higher during the quasi-monopoly phase. Ask your buddy Peter Thiel about this.

76 John Mansfield February 9, 2017 at 8:33 am

Nostromo’s dilemma hiding tons of silver bars comes to mind.

77 AlanG February 9, 2017 at 8:37 am

I get the point and my response is I want to have Ricky Jay’s ability to make things happen with a simple deck of cards. His book “Cards as Weapons” is a classic!!

78 anon February 9, 2017 at 9:16 am

I kind of get the spirit of Tyler’s post. Many fanciful “inventions” have negative potential. A lightsaber would be really good for tree trimming, but how could anything be locked up? Anyone could chop up your car, or your house.

But “so good everyone would want one” isn’t really a downside. Maybe everyone should have a spaceship.

79 Sam the Sham February 9, 2017 at 9:54 am

And if you were the only one with a lightsaber, none of that would be a problem. Tyler’s logic here is more akin to “If you had a lightsaber, your kid would accidentally kill himself with it, the lightsaber would get stolen by the Russians, and they’d use the technology to enslave the world.” (Impossible anyway, since even if we could reverse-engineer it we’d be constrained by unobtanium crystals) I think extrapolating immediately to the worst-case-scenario is more of a flight of fancy than assuming the lightsaber in the first place.

80 Turkey Vulture February 9, 2017 at 9:18 am

Tyler could have gone full soul-crushing and just noted “Even with the magic object you’re still going to die, just like the human race will die.” I admire his restraint.

81 Sam the Sham February 9, 2017 at 9:57 am

But what if you had the Monkey’s Paw and wished for immortality? You’d get to see (and feel) the heat death of the universe, everything you know get wiped out, and still not be able die after untold aeons despite suffocating in near-zero temperatures!

82 Turkey Vulture February 9, 2017 at 10:43 am

Alright I take back my previous wish and choose this one.

83 Sieben February 9, 2017 at 9:57 am

An object that grants eternal youth/vitality is still useful. Even if you run into problems trying to keep it a secret by changing identities every couple of decades, you’re still way far ahead if you live to be 130. So my pick is for a philosopher’s stone.

Oh and world peace if I had a fifth wish.

84 Nathan Taylor February 9, 2017 at 10:15 am

Of course in the Harry Potter universe magic has all the complementary goods needed. Wand shops. Schools. Headmasters. Even villains. So magic there isn’t overrated.

So a more accurate title for this post is “Why one-off magic is overrated.” Or even longer “”Why one-off magic, or one-off anything, is overrated.”

85 Eric February 9, 2017 at 10:20 am

I’d still want Harry Potter’s liquid luck!

86 anon February 9, 2017 at 10:51 am

You’d have to use that one carefully, or end up in a shallow Nevada grave.

87 Victoria Wilson February 9, 2017 at 10:50 am

An just like that the wizard pulls away the bright satin cloth to reveal that the voluntary cooperative actions between men/women settled in a structure of multiples institutions and cleavages is just as powerful as it’s materialist, transactionally unfettered counterpart.

88 Victoria Wilson February 9, 2017 at 11:16 am

Yikes- I forgot there is no editing in this comment section–
And just like that the wizard pulls away the bright satin cloth to reveal that the voluntary cooperative actions between men/women settled in a structure of multiple institutions and cleavages is just as powerful as its materialist, transactionally unfettered counterpart.

89 Travis Wiebe February 9, 2017 at 11:01 am

Missing it on the time machine. Think time-turner/invisibility cloak in Harry Potter. Then set up shop as a hedge fund… “That’s what our custom designed and very complicated algorithm said would happen”. Must never get caught using the time turner.

The math is pretty good on this one.

90 Nelson February 9, 2017 at 11:29 am

I didn’t comment the first time, but thought about it and settled on a ring from a role-playing game with +20 (or whatever) charm. That would give me about all I needed to succeed in sex, business, philanthropy, etc. The complementarity of it is built in because it works directly on the people I am aiming to get “cooperation and network effects” from.

91 Dzhaughn February 9, 2017 at 11:42 am

I always liked “A Great Work of Time” by John Crowley (in “Novelties and Souvenirs” collection) along these lines. One of the protagonists finds a clever (but limited) solution to the problem of using his “time machine” to get a very valuable object from the past to the present without attracting any attention (or requiring a notable amount of money) in either time.

92 Meets February 9, 2017 at 11:50 am

I would expect institutions and laws to catch up and protect my magical lifestyle.

After all, super fast planes and the internet probably seemed magical just a century ago.

93 Thin-Skinned Masta-Beta February 9, 2017 at 12:40 pm

How about an archive of all future Wall Street Journals? or a Special Bloomberg Terminal that provides future data?

Who wouldn’t want to be the Warren Buffett of the twenty-first century?

94 Turkey Vulture February 9, 2017 at 12:57 pm

“Should’ve kept that thought to yourself” Buffett whispers, as you hear the safety click.

95 Warren Buffett February 9, 2017 at 3:24 pm

I’m still alive, a**hole!

96 byomtov February 9, 2017 at 12:59 pm

Things fail if used unwisely.

How about using the time machine to go back 20 years, say, buy some appropriate stocks, and return. I don’t think bubonic plague would be much of a risk.

Or you could risk the 1880’s, say, and scoop up a Van Gogh or two – not too many. What gain? Ask Sotheby’s. I bet they would store it correctly for you until it was sold.

97 The Lunatic February 9, 2017 at 2:27 pm

Isaac Asimov already worked through the problem with the Van Gogh trick, in his story “Button, Button” in 1953. Though the materials and brushwork of your time-traveled painting will (naturally) indistinguishable from those used in known authentic Van Goghs, it will very obviously be recently-painted, and thus classed as a forgery.

98 Thiago Ribeiro February 9, 2017 at 3:30 pm

But it was comsidered an awesome forgery if I remember it right.

99 byomtov February 9, 2017 at 4:03 pm

it will very obviously be recently-painted, and thus classed as a forgery.

No it won’t. My machine has a compartment where I can place items so that they age exactly as they would have naturally over the time span traveled.

Magic is fun.

The real problem is an economic one. The value of Van Gogh paintings is based on their history, auction prices, and so on. By removing some from this context I affect the value, quite possibly negatively. Maybe I turn Van Gogh into a highly talented but little-known painter, whose works appeal to some collectors but are not widely sought after. Many fewer coffee cups and calendars. I have to be careful about that. Possibly the best strategy is to select only minor works,

100 JayT February 9, 2017 at 5:33 pm

Better yet, while you are you might as well save some of the money you were going to spend on Van Goghs, and buy a building in Manhattan you know will survive until current day, and stash the Van Gogh paintings in a safe and hire a company to manage the rest of the building. When you go back to current day, not only will you have a safe full of valuable artwork, you’ll also own a very valuable piece of real estate.

101 byomtov February 9, 2017 at 8:04 pm

That’s a possibility, but it’s risky. Lots of things can happen with real estate. Suppose the taxes don’t get paid and the city takes the building, or there’s an accident and a liability judgment.

With the paintings I have physical possession until I get back. That gives me an idea, though. What about diamonds instead?

So here is a question. Assume you can go back some specific number of years – say a century (though we might want to make it a little longer, given that 1917 was not a wonderful time). You can bring back a fixed weight of whatever you buy. What is the best thing to invest in?

102 Shane M February 9, 2017 at 6:17 pm

So many comments indicate they’d like a time machine to go back in time. If I was old and time running out, I’d want one to go forward and possibly take my chances. Given enough time small amounts of savings add up to huge wealth, and who knows, maybe life extension has been perfected. Some might go even when they were younger. Better than that last year in the nursing home.

103 Turkey Vulture February 9, 2017 at 1:05 pm

Time-traveling anti-microbial robot that goes back in time and buries gold, coins, and other precious materials in various spots on my property. And then buries himself, so I can repeat the cycle even though he only travels instantly in one direction.

104 The Lunatic February 9, 2017 at 2:32 pm

The obvious move, of course, is the “Magic Ring of +25 Standard Deviations to Intelligence”.

Because, of course, while naysayers can try to come up with problems that would be caused by that, they can all be met with the response, “Yeah, but after I put it on I’d be smart enough to solve that problem.”

105 KevinH February 9, 2017 at 3:08 pm

This made me think of my answer to ‘best superpower’ which would be the ability to know the exact location and composition of all molecules with X distance (obviously higher the X, the more powerful)

Regardless of the current network, increased information always helps.

106 anon/portly February 9, 2017 at 3:17 pm

In the previous thread, I thought the best answer out of 195 was comment 195, a diamond as big as the Ritz hotel. It’s certainly good if you think of “fictional object” as “an object appearing in fiction,” not simply as anything you can imagine. Then again maybe Tyler’s objection in the OP applies here, if you owned this diamond your ownership might be successfully contented in the US court system either by the government or the De Beers people, and you’d have nothing.

Another obvious answer to me, which I didn’t see although I’m guessing others thought of it, would be Atlantis. I think you could sell it (or lease it) for a lot more than you could sell a diamond as big as the Ritz. On the other hand, maybe again the objection in the OP holds and if tomorrow you owned Atlantis, by 12:30 the EU or whoever would have confiscated it for security reasons. Also maybe an island isn’t an “object.” Same objections I guess to a fictional country such as Zembla or Ecotopia.

More modestly, how about the golf course that is all one giant green (from “A Diamond as Big as The Ritz”). The land has to be worth a fortune by now. If you had clear title to it, they couldn’t take it from you, could they? Or how about a Kramler (Kinbote’s car in “Pale Fire”)? If you owned a Kramler, would that entail that other Kramlers must exist, or would yours be the only one?

Finally, people suggested all kinds of science fiction things but how about that thing in 2001? That would look cool in the yard.

107 too hot for MR February 9, 2017 at 3:28 pm

It’d take an awfully big wife to wear that thing.

108 Katy (aka Taxmom) February 9, 2017 at 4:18 pm

A garment that always morphs into the perfect outfit for any situation, so that you are wearing whatevever you put on that morning, but it always fits right and is always appropriate (including when it is appropriate to be outrageously dressed).

I have the sneaking suspicion that a few people out there already possess this item somehow.

109 Mjreard February 9, 2017 at 4:26 pm

Android girlfriend seems like a pretty safe bet. She could have a job, social skills, other things that enhance your preexisting networks.

110 Adam February 9, 2017 at 4:28 pm

I think most of your critiques apply to the concept of super powers as well, which is often the cause of angst in those tales.

111 Eric Levin February 9, 2017 at 4:29 pm

My favorite modifier in the article is “our,” which precedes “universe” in the first sentence of the last paragraph. Put them together and one has the most concise recognition possible that, as new ideas in cosmology suggest, there may be more than one universe, possibly an infinite number. Kudos to Cowan for his two-word nod to that astonishing yet mathematically explicable possibility.

112 albatross February 9, 2017 at 5:06 pm

I don’t think it’s that hard to think of things that would be beneficial but not obviously bring ruin, if we’re imagining something in the real world rather than in a be-happy-with-what-you-have morality tale.

Some obvious ones:

a. A large supply of some medicine that would permanently and substantially increase the intelligence of anyone who took it, with instructions for making more on the label. After becoming a whole lot smarter and getting together with some friends who were also a whole lot smarter, you could certainly make your life better, and perhaps cause large and valuable changes to the world.

b. A large supply of some medicine that would undo the effects of aging (and heal related illnesses, and repair related physical damage) in anyone who took it, with the manufacturing instructions printed on the bottle. Yes, the authorities might twig to your being unusually long-lived eventually, but you could use your long life and your ability to share it to fund getting the youth-elixir into large-scale production. And all else equal, you can get away with being a 50 year old with a 25 year old’s body for quite awhile.

c. A computer that will analyze the markets and tell you an optimal trading strategy given your money, risk appetite, and time horizon. You could get quite wealthy with this over time, probably without getting into any trouble.

113 Li Zhi February 9, 2017 at 5:07 pm

The OP states:”Let’s stick with the physical laws of this universe.”
Since almost everybody who has commented here seems apparently clueless (or just ignored that constraint) that means: 1) no time machines 2) no power rings 3)no lost continents (lost/submerged cities are ok) 4) no spaceships not requiring refueling 4a) no spaceships with antigravity 4b) no spaceships with FTL drives (see 1) 4c) no spaceships with force fields (as walls or shields) 4d) no spaceships with momentum cancellation… I considered the diamond the size of a hotel, but decided that it’d be too much of a hassle to protect – although I guess I could hire someone, but I’d still have to dodge DeBeers assassination attempts. Nope, I’ll stick with my original 56 carat blue diamond Heart of the Ocean. I figure that US$100 million or so is enough to live out my life on.

114 Jonny B February 10, 2017 at 10:15 am

Aw c’mon, live a little. I have a 56 carat blue diamond whatsit mounted on my +20 timespacepowerantigravity ring. zzzzzzzzwwissch ssssssseeeeeeeeeow (the sound of Jonny B recklessly zipping around space and time). Admit it, tempting ay?

(and anyway this answer only gets +.5 for OP compliance as a really expensive rock is no different than “piles of money” which the OP states is: “too trivial to be interesting”)

115 Urso February 9, 2017 at 6:15 pm

Prof. Cowen is apparently one of those vexatious genies who gives you *literally* what you ask for, but in an ironic way guaranteed to ensure your comeuppance.

116 Dan King February 9, 2017 at 6:15 pm

Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.

117 Jim Birch February 9, 2017 at 6:55 pm

I was less surprised by attempts to ” bypass market evolution” and more by the too near global ignorance of the laws of physics. Plot devices from films are not the laws of physics.

118 Chris February 9, 2017 at 7:53 pm

New Dead Sea Scrolls (or some of the lost Greek plays from from the library of Alexandria). Seems like all upside and no downside. You could sell the physical object for wealth and the increase in knowledge would benefit society as a whole. Plus you would gain a ton of social capital.

119 cw February 9, 2017 at 8:13 pm

I didn’t see the previous thread, which is too bad, because I have already put in a lot of thought about what to wish for if I had any wish. The obvious answer is a field generator projected by a small flying conscious machine like they have in science fiction novels. Ian M. Banks would call it a knife missile. If projects a field around you that is impenetrable by any current or near future technology and which could also make you invisible. I think that would be all you would need besides a winning personality, which is not an object.

120 Nic February 9, 2017 at 9:01 pm

What gives

121 Jeff February 9, 2017 at 10:08 pm

>How about a pen that creates any object you might try to draw with it?

Couldn’t I just draw … more magic pens and sell them? That would quickly mitigate the problem of being assaulted for possession of the only working copy of such a pen.

122 Cliff February 9, 2017 at 11:31 pm

That would surely result in the death of you and everyone who you love

123 Jackson Layers February 10, 2017 at 11:06 pm

This is a gem of article, it basically also tell us that at times, we don’t need all that much we run after. How many of us will die with millions settling in our bank accounts? Most might always think twice before using because of FUTURE, but there is really NO FUTURE, it’s all present that you need to think about. Magic is not there and it’s not required to be there, it’s just about been happy with life and let other be happy! I do Forex trading under OctaFX and I enjoy it every way, I don’t need magical powers.

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