*First Man* and the great stagnation

I enjoyed this movie, although I would not describe it as a must-see.  It is best for showing the rickety and claustrophobic nature of the moon landing program.

Three points struck me in particular, both concerning progress.  First, the space shots in this movie are not better than those of Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There are even several Kubrick homage shots, and they don’t look any better than the originals, and arguably somewhat worse.  Perhaps most cinematic progress has come in shooting or better yet constructing dense scenes, but that does not apply to space.

Second, I walked to my (non-fancy) car and turned on the ignition right after watching the movie.  It was immediately striking how much better and more reliable was the software in my car than in the whole well-funded moon program.  In this sense technological progress has been immense.  That said, most cars in operation today are not that much better than cars from 1969, and they perform more or less the same functions, albeit more safely.  Improving car manufacture is not that hard, but improving the usefulness of cars in our daily lives is where the problem lies.  So this supports the “the consumer space is already filled out” interpretation of the great stagnation.

Third, perhaps it is the very absence of the internet and advanced information technology that made the moon program possible.  When Armstrong arrives at the moon, you realize it is pretty boring and it has not so much to offer, either in 1969 or today.  Would they have gone to such trouble if there had been better problems to work on?  Well before the end of the movie, I found myself wanting to check my email and refresh my Twitter feed.

By the way, this movie has bombed at the box office, perhaps not a good sign for the revival of adventure in contemporary culture.


I guess I'm easily impressed. I'm stunned at how much cars have improved in my lifetime.

We buy a new car about every 10 years and even in that timeframe there are very noticeable improvements

Hi there, its pleasant paragraph concerning
media print, we all be aware of media is a wonderful source of information.

Yes, especially when one considers cost. I am most impressed by lifetime: even cars with 200k miles can still be quite reliable nowadays.

I think Tyler tries to dismiss this by contrasting "improving car manufacture" vs. improving "usefulness". But, if one can buy a far better car for far less money, then that allows one to buy other "useful" stuff with the leftover money. In that sense, the improvement in car manufacture at least partially contributes to the improvement in usefulness of smartphones. It's actually a feature, not a bug, of market economies and trade that one can transform "improvements in manufacture" in one domain into "improvements in usefulness" in another.

‘That said, most cars in operation today are not that much better than cars from 1969, and they perform more or less the same functions, albeit more safely. ‘

TC is too young to have driven a car in 1969. I drove my parents 1963 Falcon station wagon to a summer job and there is no comparison. Manual shift, hard metal dash, no seat belts, underpowered. Also, a car that could last for 100,000 miles was considered a prodigy.

We just replaced our 2007 Honda Pilot with a 2019 Toyota Highlander. The Pilot had 143,000 miles but was rusted and couldn’t pass inspection. We paid $30,000 for the Pilot and $38,000 for the Highlander (before tax and fees). The Highlander is quieter, has lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance. The engine shuts down at stops like a hybrid and the navigation and audio system is excellent.

I could go on describing the cars we have owned over 40 years, but you get the idea.

.... power everything... ABS... air conditioning.... much better gas mileage... much less pollution... much more comfortable... GPS...

This is one of those statements where you wonder if Tyler is a drug user.

definitely one of TC's most ignorant and poorly thought-out comments. mpg, durability,cost/mile, SAFETY!! and on and on. I've been wondering the same thing recently. He seems to occasionally post such nonsense and so randomly that I've been wondering about substance abuse. Perhaps just a mid-life crisis?

Everybody is right about the improvements since 1969, but I think that misses Tyler's point which is that the fundamental utility of a car -- what it enables people to do, how it affects lives and the texture of society -- has changed little since 1969. That's true. And, in fact, it's almost equally true compared to 1929. Cars do what they do -- having a Model T rather than no car represents a *vastly* bigger change than having a Honda Accord rather than a Model T.

The same is true, BTW, of our tech products. Laptops, digital cameras, smart-phones, etc also do what they do and the marginal improvements that come years or decades after introduction aren't all that meaningful.

Yes, that was how I too read Tyler's point.

$30K in 2007 to $38K in 2019. That is a 1.9% CAGR, just a little lower than CPI in the period 2006 to 2018 at 2.28%. I don't see (my subjective opinion) that as tremendous productivity improvement that I read your comments to imply.

It is when you consider the quality improvements. You now get a much improved vehicle for the same inflation-adjusted dollars.

Devil's Advocate: people spend tens of thousands of dollars restoring old cars from the 40's-70's. In forty years, no one is going to spend that kind of money to restore, say, a 2015 Mustang or Challenger.

That's because old people with money and time view those as the cars of their youth. But that window moves along. You already see rising prices on the cars of the 80s, and eventually it will be the cars of the 2010s.

Agreed, I know an engineer who spent a considerable amount of money rebuilding a Pontiac Fiero.


My contention is the window will not move along, and JWatts friend is the exception rather than the rule.

Doesn't necessarily mean cars today aren't better, but...put it this way, it's maybe a little suggestive that cars with retro-looks like the Challenger and Camaro have become popular.

You don't think we've already moved on to the 80s? The Buick Grand National? Air-cooled 911s? Wagoneers, Defenders, Broncos?

In 2030 there'll be people restoring fwd imports from the 90s.

For a little later I'd guess the Viper, the last of the front-engine Corvettes, and we're living in the golden age of the supercar.

I'd also expect the center-of-gravity to shift into trucks as the mainstream market has done. The Raptor will be crazy popular in 2050 when everything is electric and, relatively speaking, antiseptic.

This topic is analogous to the one about 21st century additions to the Great American Songbook: which cars will be viewed as classics say 30 or 40 years from now?

I agree that even if just due to nostalgia, some recent and current models will be sought-after antiques. I think the notion of trucks is perhaps the best bet. Which trucks, I don't know, probably big ones but maybe some small ones just as the VW Beetle became a classic despite being a rather crappy car overall.

And probably some SUVs. Jeeps and Hummers might have the best chance of becoming classics (arguably the CJ7 and related models already are), but Toyota 4Runners might have a shot. I'm thinking especially of the early models which were literally just Toyota pickup trucks with a rear seat added and a fiberglass roof put over the back. A rollbar to protect the occupants (and that probably saved my life when my 4Runner got totaled on I-5), manual locking hubs, manual everything.

My expectation is that cars from the '80's will never be as in-demand as those from the '50's or 60's. I could be wrong, of course.

You'll be right. Cars from the fifties and sixties were marvels to the adults and young of that era. They all looked different, had multi-color paint jobs and flamboyant designs. Cars were an industrial art form and GM head of design Harley Earl was the Rembrandt of the era. The purchase of a car was the expression of one's tastes.

Not any more. Government mandates requiring maximum fuel efficiency and safety mean that cars look like the optimum performer in a wind tunnel, ergo they all look alike. Instead of being a dynamic manifestation of the driver's personality the contemporary car is regarded by its owner as a utilitarian conveyance that's ultimately an expensive necessity that requires a parking place. Few people take cross-country road trips and affix decals to the rear windows commemorating their stop at Mount Rushmore anymore. They hop a plane to Rapid City and rent a utilitarian transport device.

Their kids will regard cars as a nuisance. Even car buffs will have problems restoring the current crop of computer-driven hoopies with all the specialized tools and equipment needed to service them. They will disappear just as the horse-drawn carriages have, seen only in out-of-the-way places like Amish communities. People working on their own late-model cars are a rarity now except in Mexican neighborhoods.

This seems spot on.

martel seems right on. In addition, collectibles in general are in decline. And as anyone who's had to clean out their parents' house or downsized themselves in the past few years, younger people (in general) don't want all that stuff. They're more likely to be interested in collecting experiences than objects.

True, my dad can watch any movie from 1950-1965 and identify basically the model and year of every car in the shot. I could not do that for even the most basic and obvious models (mustang, PT cruiser, etc) of cars from my childhood.

And if you think progress is logarithmic, the rate of change is accelerating. In the future, nostalgia won't be what it used to be. Sound like a gag, but phenomenologically it's parameters will be vastly different.

There was an excellent song about 40 years ago called IIRC "Nostalgia Ain't What It Used to Be". I can't find it on google (there are other songs with the same title; I don't know how good they are) and do not remember the artist. It derided the 50s nostalgia that was then current (the 60s were too recent to become nostalgic about), I only remember a couple of fragments of the lyrics:

"Living together was still a sin
Why do you think we brought the 60s in?

Teen angel, teen angel. Rest in pieces."

So maybe I'm nostalgic for a song that derided nostalgia.

Jeff R - "... window will not move along ..."

I think you are correct. Auto body designs have converged, perhaps because of wind tunnel tests and aerodynamics. Cars designed before the 1980s often had unique body shapes.

My sons think modern cars all look the same and find even the most mundane autos from the 60s and 70s beautiful.

I think this is a good point, made by cyanoman, chuck martel and others. It's quite possible that pre '80's cars were iconic enough (and simple enough for an amateur to rebuild ) that no post 70's cars will approach that level of popularity.

'It was immediately striking how much better and more reliable was the software in my car than in the whole well-funded moon program. '

Yet, amusingly, the odds of that car still being functional in a generation are close to nil. On the other hand, one of the rickety VW Beetles built in 1969 (or a BMW motorcycle from 1979, for that matter) can remain functional as along as a culture retains the basic level of machining found in most larger towns even today.

I had a 1965 bug. It was charming in its way, but it had a 6 volt electrical system and really dim lights. In an accident it had no chance against a heavy American car.

I’ll take a 1980 Honda car or motorcycle any day. German cars are fun to drive and look great - we had a 1998 Passat and a 2001 BMW 530 - but they aren’t reliable.

1969 Bugs were 12 volt, and with improved motor power. And though Honda makes fine motorcyles, a Honda from 1980 is simply not comparable in terms of lifespan and reliability to a BMW twin from the same year.

However, the real point was that a 1969 bug was basically completely mechanical, meaning that any half competent machine shop today is able to create/repair parts, This is extremely unlikely to be true in 50 years for any of the components that process digital information in a car built today.

In this sense technological progress has been immense.

Yes, cars are much more technologically sophisticated and reliable than in even the recent past. Pretty much like everything else. But in the few generations that have seen the development of an automobile-focused society cultural changes have occurred that might not be considered positive. For instance, for the average American the most pressing daily concern is not what their child is learning or what schizoid will be running the country but instead finding the closest possible parking space next to the front door of the super market.

You live in a different world than I do. Pretty much everything is now technologically sophisticated - yes, but only if you mean by "sophisticated" "too complex to understand." I'd prefer to see sophisticated products/services that are well designed. The other part of your comment about being more reliable is even further from my experience. Cellphones are designed (with their non-replaceable batteries - to be replaced every 2 years. Showers are designed to be completely replaced every 5 years. I do think cars are better made and more reliable, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Replace the shower every 5 years?? What?

"... closest parking ..."

For many people, time is the limiting factor in modern life.

The time it takes to walk 30 yards is completely inconsequential unless you're being chased by a grizzly. No normal person remembers the time involved in one particular episode for more than a few hours. Americans are conditioned to look at time as a commodity, regardless of the circumstances. Many others are not.

American made cars in the late 1960s and early 1970s were junk. I know because I owned several. Peoples' perception of technology and progress was much different back then. Armstrong landed on the moon the year after the release of 2001, but 2001 did not diminish my enthusiasm for landing on the moon. I think people were better able to distinguish fantasy from reality back then as compared to today. All this non-stop "technology" has damaged our brains' ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

" That said, most cars in operation today are not that much better than cars from 1969,"

LOL, you are completely wrong about this Tyler. Even a cursory glance at the specifications would tell you how wrong you are about this. Cars built in 1969 didn't last for 200K miles without multiple major overhauls. They weren't as safe, didn't drive as well, weren't nearly as comfortable and cost more.

Not to mention the new ones have cupholders.

And seat warmers.

It's more than just basic safety for the improvement in car technology -- the material sciences and particularly the suspension geometry for handling, as well as the spring/dampening of the car. Then look at fuel efficiency not merely in terms of MPH but in power output per unit fuel. Even the understanding in the aerodynamics has improved hugely.

And aesthetically the designs have perhaps improved but one might see that as a return to roots but achieved in the mass market output not just the small craft market.

You're of course correct about the technological improvements, but from a consumer perspective the improvements in fuel efficiency don't even offset the increase in fuel prices. This, this part of the technological was required just to avoid a diminution in consumer satisfaction (ignoring the endogeneity between cartel- and tax-based fuel price determinants and consumer satisfaction with the automobile.)

"the improvements in fuel efficiency don't even offset the increase in fuel prices."

According to this site:

Gasoline in real dollars in 1978 = $2.66; 2017 = $2.47


Point taken, but (a) I'm going back farther than 1969 and remember (perhaps falsely) gas as cheaper back then; (b) gas back then was bundled with consumer goods to get you to come to the station; and (c) I pay closer to $3.50 now; and (c) gas is much cheaper in the last couple of years, partly because of the endogeneity I described above.

Wow I'm actually surprised, even in 1969 inflation adjusted gas prices were $2.26.


Gas was .17/gal in Joplin, MO at one point in 1969.

Maybe the gallons were smaller then.

Price of gasoline in US in 1969 = $0.35

Adjusted for inflation: $2.26


"That said, most cars in operation today are not that much better than cars from 1969, and they perform more or less the same functions, albeit more safely. Improving car manufacture is not that hard, but improving the usefulness of cars in our daily lives is where the problem lies. So this supports the “the consumer space is already filled out” interpretation of the great stagnation."

Id say that this supports the diminishing marginal utility type theory (sorry im not an economist, this might be the wrong term).

Initial cars were crude, so early R & D yielded huge gains simply because there was lots of room for improvement. Cars to day are not much better than cars from 10 years ago because all the big improvements have been done, we are experiencing diminishing marginal returns for our R & D investment.

I dunno, ten years ago we did not have back up video cameras.

The official moon landing story is just an American myth. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin just stayed in the apollo pod in orbit around Earth for a few days. The technology was really too rudimentary for more in the 1960s. If you realize that then space programs have shown slow but encouraging progress.
Btw, special effects in 2001: an odyssey story are much worse than what you remember. Special effects have also shown slow but steady progress.

Hard to believe that a bright strobe light that could have been visible from the earth wasn't left on the moon to prove that men had been there until it's batteries failed.

Or that a reflector wasn't set up that you can still bounce a laser off of.

Because of diffraction in the atmosphere, a laser beam will have kilometers of diameter once reaching the Moon. Which makes this mythical reflector useless.

The beam is about 6.5 kilometers wide when it reaches the lunar surface. Because it's diffuse the reflector sends back one photon every few seconds. We can detect single photons, so it works.

Chuck, the US did consider nuking the moon.


Can't say it was a really bright idea. It's not really a good message to send to the world:

"We are against the first use of nuclear weapons -- except when it comes to the moon! Screw you, natural satellite!"

We know the Apollo 11 transmissions came from the moon so the amazing part of this story is how they managed to land a huge bank of magnetic tape on the lunar surface and then it flawlessly played fake mission footage and transmitted mission telemetry. I wanna see a movie about this.

mebbe the movie you want to see is called
"Moonwalkers" with the late
Ron Perlman?

Sounds good, but what I really want is a movie about the project to develop the technology to fake the moon landing transmissions from the moon. I'm not saying it would be impossible to develop the required technology by 1969 but they'd need like an Apollo project to do it.

Now, you are just being silly. Obviously the Gemini missions covertly landed on the Moon and planted the gear to fake the results of the Apollo missions. Duh.

With Gemini's payload? No, clearly the Russians were in on it too. We know their life support technology is amazing because they managed to keep the midget inside the Lunokhod rover alive for 11 months.

The US approached relied on a top secret monkey astronaut corp. It's not like you needed a human to actually fly the thing. And you didn't have to worry about the cost of returning to Earth. They're remains were dropped into Cornelius crater of course.

I don't think monkeys would be up to the task. The only explanation that makes sense, when you think it through logically, is the top secret monkey corp was infiltrated by Soviet ape/human hybrids sent by the KGB. If we posit super intelligence resulting from their hybrid vigor then the plan to send fake Apollo landing transmissions from the moon could have easily succeeded. Additionally, their super intelligence could have allowed them to avoid their grisly fate in Dr Cornelius crater. So even now, across the gulf of space, minds far great than our own could be regarding this earth with envious eyes and slowly but surely drawing their plans against us.

Was it secret infiltration or was it a joint Soviet / American plan to establish a secret Moon Base as a watch station against the Martian menace?

We may never know. It is the victors who write history. But I don't think it was a coincidence that in the 1950s America was whipped into a frenzy over the "Red Menace". Clearly this was to prepare us mentally to resist Mars. The communists may have been referred to as reds because they had decided to betray humanity and throw their lot in with the Martians.

You Fools don't realise that the Martians were just a front for the Venusians / "Greens".

Once their Soviet/Cydonian puppets had outlived their usefulness they moved the issues onto "Global Warming" as part of their Terraforming agenda for our world.

The secret Gemini moon landing to fake the Apollo moon landing - thanks, JWatts and Crikey, for uncovering this. :-)

Wait a minute... Ron Perlman's dead? Oh no! War just changed!

Ron Perlmans not dead
hes late
Rhea Perlman is dead

#3: going to the Moon for research is interesting, either on 1969 or today. Today, robots can do exploration for a lower budget than humans. On the years leading to1969, there was only an industrial robot working on a GM plant, the Germans only caught up 10 years later, and a robot like NASA's Curiosity rover was just a dream. So, sending a man to the Moon was the only option to plant that flag. We got boring but more useful things such as weather satellites and GPS today.

Would it have been more efficient to forgo the man on the Moon for robots, weather satellites? Of course. But, as any investment, some of it produces yield, other part is burned and it's not possible to know the outcome in advance. The adventure is NOT on going to the Moon, but on betting on the development of new, crazy and apparently useless technologies.

you cannot compare software in your car with the apollo space program simply because there was no software on the apollo space program. Everything was hardcoded in.

Car have gotten an order of magnitude more efficient, reliable, cleaner burning, and able to produce way more power in a smaller engine compared to the 60s and 70s. The technological advancements have been enormous.

@AndrewL - I was going to challenge you on this but you're right, the EPROM was invented in the early 1970s, after Apollo was winding down.

A more exciting pseudo-documentary would have been on a chess match, like for example the Karpov-Korchnoi world championship match of the late 1970s in Manila, Philippines, which I see some indie film producer is going to release into the US market soon. Korchnoi had defected just prior to the match, and was afraid, Khashoggi style, he would be liquidated by the KGB and hence was always looking over his shoulder. They say that Estonian GM Paul Keres was hesitant to beat Soviet favorite GM Botvinnik for the same reason (liquidation) and that's why he threw a critical championship game rather than win after WWII.

Bonus trivia: "Liquidation on the Chess Board: Mastering the Transition Into the Pawn Endgame" is a good book by GM Joel Benjamin, who helped program the opening book in IBM's Deep Blue II that beat Kasparov, the book won the 2015 Best Book Award of the Chess Journalists of America award. It's kind of advanced though, so likely not going to be a NY Times best seller.

" the EPROM was invented in the early 1970s, after Apollo was winding down."

And Ray Lopez once again demomstrates that he doesn't undertand any of the stuff he talks about.

Hint: there were computers before there were EPROMs; there was software before there were integrated circuits to store it on.

As other readers have already pointed out, Professor Cowen's statement about automobiles was just dumb (to be charitable; other words could have easily be substituted for 'dumb'). Cars are more efficient, better build quality, don't require after market rust treatment (wonder what happened to Ziebart???), etc.

Maybe this is just the statement of a an economics professor who has no understanding of automotive engineering. If so, it's a very sad commentary of his knowledge base.

"Maybe this is just the statement of a an economics professor who has no understanding of automotive engineering."

Yes, but does he not even drive. Hell, my wife would know that comment was bunk. She knows the cars we own today are way better than the cars from the 1970's, or the 1980's or even the 1990's. There's been a drastic improvement in nearly every aspect of cars during that 40 year period.

The various outraged comments show that most of the commentariat here are aspergery engineering types, no big surprise. Tyler is right that from the consumer point of view, there has been very little significant improvement in automobile technology since the 1950s. My 1963 Ford Fairlane could do 70-75MPH on a highway in all weather and at all times of day, could carry 5 people and luggage/groceries etc. What key function can a 2018 Ford Mondeo perform that a Fairlane could not? Sure GPS, satellite radio, proximity sensors, better shocks, power brakes, etc. All nice-to-haves but peripheral to the main purpose of an automobile. There was a major leap from horse-driven carriages to gasoline powered automobiles.
There is no comparable leap between a vintage 1960 automobile and 2018 automobile in terms of its effect on society at large or how most individuals organize their daily lives. It took my mother 15 minutes to drive to the supermarket in 1965, it takes my (or her) 15 minutes today. A 30 minute commute from a Boston suburb to downtown in 1965 is probably a 50 minute commute today with traffic. Progress?

Significant improvements would mean what? Self-driving, definitely. Ability to fly would be nice.

@Peter Akuleyev - right you are. In any technology, there's an S-shaped curve for improvements over time. Incremental advances are made, that are nevertheless important. Do you know why airplanes are retired early? Sometimes a two percent per metric fuel savings. For example retiring the Boeing 747 in favor of more fuel efficient models. It does not imply the old models were no good.

Bonus trivia: The Model T! If it's good enough for grandpa, it's good enuf 4 me! The Ford Model T used a 177 cu in (2.90 L) inline 4-cylinder engine. It was primarily a gasoline engine. It produced 20 hp (15 kW) for a top speed of 45 mph (72 km/h).

Agreed here. TC understates the improvements in cars, but he is right in the degree to which the consumer space is substantially already filled.

However, driving costs down still matters since people are still spending a lot of income on physical goods, definitely cars included.

"It was immediately striking how much better and more reliable was the software in my car than in the whole well-funded moon program. In this sense technological progress has been immense."

I bet you think the cost of software in all the cars is much lower than the cost of software for NASA up to 1973.

However, SWAG, car software labor costs are probably 100 times higher than for NASA before 1973.

Ie, it would cost more to do the software for a new program to land just six times on the Moon than before 1973. The software costs would be "lower" only if there were thousands of landings on the Moon, which would spread a bigger number over more units lowering the unit cost.

Note, software reuse, e.g. does not eliminate the cost of the required software, it merely spreads the costs to more users.

But increasing the number of users requires massive increases in costs to the customers for the complements. I.e., the "cheap" Android software has required hundreds of millions of people to spend at least 10 times as much, probably 100 times as much, for the handset than they would have in 1990. I.e. I bought a phone with answering machine and wireless handset for $40-50 to use with my $18 a month landline (before taxes). That was also the price I paid in 2005 and the price i paid in 1986 when I had the line installed, but higher than the previous line with same service it replaced when I moved. The lack of price hikes is to reduce the triggering of service cancellation. When I got DSL service the cost for basic service increased with the DSL price adding to it, so I cancelled my second line I had for the maybe 1 hour per year I wanted to talk while dialed up to the Internet. But even then, my cost per month increased, even with the "special introductory discounted price for two year commitment."

The trigger for buying DSL was the need to replace my VCRs, which cost $100 for ten years of service, plus $100 a year for new tapes, for timeshifting TV. The lone equivalent cost $350, but with limited storage unlike VCRs (The Magnavox DVR Wal-Mart contracted to be built for it to sell. But TiVo was a simpler option for my sister, so I paid $900 for a two channel unit. Then TiVo offered a 4 channel unit for $800 which I upgraded her to and I took home the old unit, requiring I pay an extra $150 to the phone company for DSl for the Tivo. I liked it so much I increased my cost by $600, then $500 in subsequent years. Because I couldn't buy new VCRs for under $100. (I don't think you can buy a new VCR for a $1000, or even $10,000)

Cable TV increased consumer costs a lot, but provided very little added value to consumers, or society, other than forcing mostly workers to pay lots more workers to work in businesses than have become less profitable. The Hollywood industry has struggled to cover labor costs which have increased dramatically to cover increased demand from consumers, who are spending more and demanding more, reducing unit volume for an increased number of products, that in total cost much more.

With four times the number of TV series from a decade ago, revenues have not increased as much as labor costs, which have come down from technology, and falling profits. Share prices of video camera makers surged assuming that future profits would be high based on customers volunteering to increase costs year over year to infinity. E.g. GoPro is worth one-fifth its worth five years ago because customers refused to increase costs as much as the market expected five years ago. Customer cost cutting killed jobs at GoPro.

GDP growth per capita requires forcing higher living costs. Tanstaafl.

Yes! Cars have improved, Tyler's well aware of that. But their degree of improvement is smaller than that of electronic devices. The basic experience -- get in the car and drive somewhere -- is a bit nicer, cheaper, safer, and more reliable than it used to be but it's still 90% the same experience. Using a computer has changed a lot more than that, as has watching TV (if you even still *have* a TV), listening to music, taking photographs, etc.

Interesting... everything I read was that the space scenes were pretty spectacular. Did you see it in IMax?

Definitely a bad sign for our times... the cheesy (fun, but with horrible dialogue and cardboard characters) 'A Star is Born' is getting all the love now. Agree completely about this showing adventure not making a comeback at least for the time being.

Was very disappointed in your third point though TC. Isn't China working hard on a second lunar landing? Seems to me there is still a lot to learn. And if you really think that your twitter feed is more interesting than real live space travel (as opposed to soap operas like Star Wars)... well, I may have to reassess my thoughts on your imaginative powers. That sounds more like ADD to me.

And didn't you recently cast doubt on the importance of psychedelic drugs based on the belief that real world experience is way more interesting? How does that square with this claim? (I get it, you may not actually believe this, but still would love to hear a reply).

A few observations.

(1) Cars are far more reliable, and so are tires. They last longer. Cleaner and more efficient and safer. The CPI for new cars relative to the overall CPI has fallen by more than half; the CPI attempts to correct for quality changes.

(2) The events of "2001" could have happened with funding. The Great Stagnation is not technological but cultural. The USA abandoned the space program in the narcissistic and hedonistic 1970s; we traded spaceships for discos.

(3) The movie had problems. They cast a Canadian for Armstrong, and a Brit for his wife. They decided to omit the flag raising on the moon as irrelevant. In our new global economy, Hollywood is aiming to please the Chinese and Mexicans, not the Americans. They shouldn't be surprised when Americans walk away.

(4) You linked to an article about the US turning away from space telescopes. We are still turning inward. The only priority for western governments anymore is sending checks to old people, and I am sorry to say that few old people will vote for the future.

"The USA abandoned the space program in the narcissistic and hedonistic 1970s; we traded spaceships for discos."

The US was strapped between a large military commitment to prevent Communist military expansion and the expansion of the welfare state combined with the end of cheap oil.

Hedonism and narcissism is a little strong but I like your point about the great stagnation being more cultural than technological.

Foreigners think the US is still exploring space, but Americans apparently don't think they are. Odd that.

Apollo was designed with slide rules.

I had a summer job about 1974 as an undergrad, processing solar particle data from a lunar instrument package. The processing was done on the retired Gemini computers from NASA, which as I recall had 4K of working memory. The program was loaded with a paper tape, and the data was read from and results written to 12" (?) tapes and reel-to-reel tape drives. Data visualization was done by plotting to a large flat bed paper plotter. This was the best equipment affordable to a Tier 1 research university.

Yow, my Research I university was still using IBM punchcards in 1979, but I think paper tape out-obsolesces punchcards even with a five year gap.

The main campus computer (Burroughs I think) used punch cards when I got there in 71. This ex-Gemini setup, about the size of three or four refrigerators, was used by the Space Science department. I'm guessing, but I presume it was easier and cheaper to just use the existing peripherals than to try to hack an upgrade. Very much not plug-and-play in those days.

Since it has already been pointed out how dumb the statement was about the improvement of automobiles (and I am in total agreement on that concern), I will point out the one way that Cowen's statement was true and correct: the transportation system. Which functions in very much the same way, with very little functional change, since the 1960's. More freeways, interstates, and highways (which we have "discovered" always fill up after being built), and recently more bicycle inclusion, but it all still works the same. And the changes in traffic composition would probably be considered minor, although I don't have numbers. Little change in commute times or time in traffic. Little change in transportation choice.

"Little change in commute times or time in traffic. "

Yes, the population has grown by 50% since 1969 and the commute times are just as good.

Brought to you by the Glass is Half Full committee.

Don’t forget fatalities per 1000 miles driven.

We love to make fun of Ralph Nader, but seatbelts were a game changer.

And airbags.

And it’s getting better every day.

It wasn't like seat belts had just been invented. Anybody could have put seat belts in their car at any time in the past and people did. They were federally mandated in 1968. Now, 50 years later, the cops are still looking for and finding people cruising around without seatbelts in use, people that have never been in a car without them. And how do you know if your air bag even works? How often do you test it?

Other people keep testing my make and model of airbag for me. Thank you Squishnose McBruiseface.

"I will point out the one way that Cowen's statement was true and correct: the transportation system. "

Yes, Cowen is correct on the substance and everyone here is nitpicking about peripheral issues. A horse drawn carriage in 1890 was significantly nicer, more comfortable, and more efficient than a 1600s era carriage, it still wasn't a game changer.

You just skipped 290 years though versus 5 decades of cars, but I think the comparison is appropriate. Yes a horse drawn carriage in 1890 had 4 wheels and horses but in every way that matters to the quality of the ride and cost to the user it was a vast improvement over one in 1600....similar to cars which is what makes Tyler's statement silly to a reasonable reader.

Today's cars and plainly better than one offered in 1969. Even when new, 60's cars didn't run right, often broke down and began to rust as soon as it left the showroom. Not to mention that A/C, radios, and safety features were all but absent.

I really enjoy MR's movie review posts, including this one. I'd quibble with: "That said, most cars in operation today are not that much better than cars from 1969, and they perform more or less the same functions..." Claim 1 seems obviously false (Who can forget the hassle of a finicky carburetor? Or the frustration of constantly spinning out in a rear-wheel drive vehicle every winter? Improvements in efficiency and safety should not be so casually tossed aside either.) and claim 2 is probably true but possibly irrelevant. When Hans Rosling points out that infant mortality has declined, I'm not sure how skeptical of progress I should be if TC says: "yeah, but doctors and public health institutions are still doing performing more or less the same functions." All in all, I think TC should consider adaptability--even when things change drastically, our default is to barely register the change (Haidt).

Cars have undergone, shall we say, a marginal revolution in everything from safety to comfort to aesthetics.

My current car, a Subaru Outback, actually has crap software. The main annoyance is that radio state is not properly persistent. Every time I start the car it comes on. I turn it off, start the car it is on again. Try to trun it off while backing up and the car is too busy (the backup camera must take a lot of cpu). Turn the radio off, do voice nav, and then the radio is on again.

It's absurd. This should be about the easiest thing in the million lines of code cars carry these days.

I think that a Toyota Prius is the most high tech best engineered and built thing in the world. Space craft runs are too small.

I drove a Prius 150,000 miles and never noticed a real design error. Well, it was annoying when the LED tail lights finally went out you had to buy a big $300 unit.

My impression is that "First Man" got terrible pre-release word of mouth, and once it was released it got worse. I have not seen it, but what I have read pretty much everywhere is that it presented a completely fictional view of Neal Armstrong as a man with all sorts of inner conflicts and fears, and all heroic aspects of the story were carefully removed or played down. Maybe this is false and it's a great movie, but I doubt it. "Apollo 13" was all about heroism and was very successful.

As someone who has owned a Ford Falcon and a Chevy Vega, I laugh at Tyler's ignorance of what cars were like "back in the day."

Obviously, Professor Cowen never drove a Chrysler product from the 1970s! :-)

However, he does have a point. My Honda from 30 years ago was very reliable and got better gas mileage than many cars today b/c it did not have mandated airbags to weigh it down. The major differences that you'd notice right away as an occupant are power windows and cup holders. After 3 decades, the experience of today's cars is not that different. A 30 year old Honda could still do the job today.

Adaptive cruise control and backup cameras are impressive and very nice, but not exactly as advanced as you might have imagined 30 years ago.

Your Honda from 30 years ago had substantially less horsepower than the modern equivalent, had inferior tires, polluted significantly more, had a much less durable paint job and a lower transmission and motor mileage life time.

Cars have improved across the board in nearly every category over the last 30 years, except for cost. And even then total cost per mile has declined.

Those heavy airbags are really holding us back. 5 pounds each! Imagine the mileage we could achieve if they're weren't required?

"Albeit more safely"

Have vehicle safety improvements saved more life-years than all cancer research since 1968 put together? I don't know but it wouldn't shock me if it were true.

I'm a fan of Cowen's work, but one thing I'm struck by is how naive he is when commenting on art. It's a subjective world, and words like "better" and "good" are essentially meaningless. I cringe every time I read his comments on music, film, etc.

It would be sweet if he read this and the comment inspired him to go bigger the way he inspired his masters applicant! I'm adding my finger to yours in pointing to the rich space which is communicable appreciation. Not criticism, communicable appreciation. Perhaps he does that, just not here. If he doesn't, yeah, "Check it out!"

The movie is just called First Man, Tyler. No "The".

Well, leaving a short word out is appropriate:

"A small step for man a giant leap for mankind."

Sorry, but I'm going to have to pile on here too.

I suspect the fundamental mistake here is in comparing cars from both eras that are functional. The reality is that cars from the 60's didn't last as long, had many more defects and were significantly less safe. Gas mileage was much worse too.

But if all you're looking for is the ability to get from point A to point B, then yes they're comparable in that respect.

At this point why would or how could any Hollywood fare even be thought to capable of reviving "adventure in contemporary culture"?

Hollywood is at war with human imagination: attendees are permitted no room or moment for imagination, directors and producers fill every micron of screen space with "visual data", every moment with Dolby-synchronized non-diegetic music for lifting viewers' chair-bound (and otherwise flat) affectivities.

The only "adventure in contemporary culture" Hollywood is capable of conveying any sense of has become almost exclusively the vapidity of the celebrity "culture" it has helped spawn for decades and generations.

From my first post, First Man and our capacity for experience (spoiler alert, small):

To have traveled to the moon, even as “spam in a can”, that is an enormous adventure. To look at earth from space, from the moon, I can’t comprehend it. And yet Neil Armstrong, at the center of this film, is just a man, an earthbound human like you and me. Did this sacred journey stretch his capacity for experience to the breaking point? Chazelle reaches for that ‘dimension’ by thematically linking the way-too-early death of Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, with his first steps on the moon. He leaves her infant identity bracelet behind on the moon. Thus does Chazelle both close and open the gap between earthbound experience and being on the moon.

From my second post,

It’s one thing to have small groups take limited tours of duty on the moon, asteroids, or Mars. That will be expensive enough & I don’t know whether there’ll be enough economic return to pay for it. But there might. Maybe have a small crew to maintain and repair the robots that do all the heavy lifting.

Permanent babies-to-adults generation-after-generation settlement, that’s a different game altogether. Where’s the comfortable domesticity, the relaxed suburban sprawl with the lawns, pools, tennis courts, and country clubs (we’re talking elite suburbia here)? You can’t just go out the door and talk a walk on Mars. You’ve got to suit-up and go through an airlock and watch your step!–like Neil Armstrong did in the movie. That’s not so convenient.

The moon has lava tubes underground that are so large they would not feel 'underground'. There is a tube in the Marius Hills that is hundreds of meters from the ceiling to the bottom, 500 meters wide, and 50-100km in length. It is suspected that some lava domes may be as large as a kilometer in height and five kilometers in diameter. You could put a large city in there, including parks and lakes and bike trails. But screw the bikes - in 1/6 gravity, we could strap on wings and fly.

If we could seal and pressurize some of these tubes, we could house hundreds of millions of people.

As for what they would do there - the moon has many advantages over Earth. Abundant vacuum, low gravity, endless solar power, large supplies of water, oxygen, titanium, aluminum, thorium, and other materials. The surface contains the debris from all meteor and cometary collisions, not having plate tectonics. Mining for gold, platinum, and other rare minerals may be feasible.

We actually know very little about the moon. We have explored only a tiny fraction, and we are still learning new and important things every day. 20 years ago we thought the moon was a bone-dry ball of rock and dust. Now we know it has at least 800 million tonnes of water at the poles, and that water is constantly made on the surface. We've discovered lava tubes, which are pristine environments protected from radiation, meteorites and the solar wind. We have no idea what's inside them.

Mining will be hampered by the lack of ore bodies on the moon. This doesn't mean resources can't be extracted but it does mean that it's not like on earth the action of water plus geothermal heat has often done a lot of the work for us.

But stable lava tunnels do sound like great locations for low cost habitats.

Chapter 5 from a 1982 NASA study: Replicating Systems Concepts: Self-Replicating Lunar Factory and Demonstration, http://space.nss.org/media/1982-Self-Replicating-Lunar-Factory.pdf

2004 Johns Hopkins report, An Architecture for Self-Replicating Lunar Factories, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/239830985_An_Architecture_for_Self-Replicating_Lunar_Factories

Self-Replicating 3D Printers Could Build Moon Bases, Fight Global Warming, 2017, https://www.space.com/37101-self-replicating-3d-printer-moon-bases.html

Affordable, rapid bootstrapping of space industry and solar system civilization (NASA), https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1612/1612.03238.pdf

"*The First Man* and the great stagnation"

It seems like the core complaints are that this movie took a heroic and patriotic event and made it less heroic and patriotic. This was not popular with American audiences.

This shouldn't be a surprise for anyone not living in a bubble. Is there a Straussian reading of this or is Tyler just inside a bubble?

The movie includes a lovely shot of Neil Armstrong's young son raising the American flag at his school while his father is in space on his first Gemini mission.

That's not quite the same.

"Following outrage online, Aldrin tweeted a photo of himself and Armstrong on the moon, alongside the hashtags “proud to be an American,” “freedom,” “honor.” “one nation,” and “road to Apollo 50.”"


When Buzz Aldrin is making acerbic comments about the movie, you've lost a good chunk of your audience.

You really think there's a lot of people in the audience who would have gone:

"Wait a minute... That's an American flag! They were Americans all along! My grandad told me New Jersey was the first country to land on the moon!"

This is a bit tangential, but there have been a lot of prominent media claims regarding how China is going to leave the US behind in technology because of the its recent massive public funding commitment to general research.

I have been reading a lot of rather broad claims about why a US roll back of public funding for scientific research is a huge policy error. I personally remain rather skeptical.

When trumpeting this alleged policy mis-step, media figures (I'm thinking in particular of people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Fareed Zakaria, but I'm sure there are others), always tout the US space program in the 60s as instrumental in giving the US a leg up on other nations, and assert (without any evidence, as far as I can see) that the US simply would not enjoy the advantage it has in the tech sector today but for the massive public spending that went into the space program back then.

Has anyone ever looked at this and attempted to answer the question empirically?

Forgot to add another question I had. Has anyone looked at the relative merits of publicly funded general research vs. the not insubstantial amount of funding being poured into commercial tech research of various kinds by Alphabet, Microsoft, and the like, and their relative impacts on tech innovation?

Tyler linked to this a few days ago:


I think the trick is that different channels of research focus on different things, and if you want to make lots of progress, you want to make it on a broad wavefront.

Support all eight channels.

>this movie has bombed at the box office, perhaps not a good sign for the revival of adventure in contemporary culture.

The movie bombed precisely because it utterly lacked all sense of adventure, and decided to be about a guy who misses his dead daughter.

Nice try, though.

It bombed because of the politics. The American Flag apparently triggered a lot of millennials so they didn't include it.

It bombed because young people today have a sixth sense that some of the apollo story was fake. It insults them, as a young generation, being told they are incapable of going back to the moon by older people because of "lack of will, money" or "laziness".

true...the kids smell bullshit

I too wonder how he can say this when you used to see so many breakdowns on the road, and it was something you actively dreaded. Possibly my earliest childhood memory is 5 (!) kids and my mother crammed into a Jaguar E Type, likely moon landing year-vintage, broken down in the rain at night. (Ah, the extended adolescence of parents who came of age in the fifties; thank heavens they finally gave in and got a station wagon.) The hassle was compounded, of course, by not having a phone. But maybe T.C., being an urban-dweller, considers that the freedom from that worry (my little Nissan has never had an engine issue of any kind in 10 years) is offset by the number of hours spent in congestion. You're similarly stranded, just in slow-motion.

'being an urban-dweller'

Where he lives in Northern Virginia is definitely not urban by any definition. Look around W.T. Woodson HS on google maps to get an idea of what that particular part of suburbia looks like.

If you were rich, drove new cars, and had upper body strength equal to or better than the average male, then there hasn't been a huge change in the experience of driving a car over the past 50 years. They reliably get you where you want to go and and the controls are pretty much the same though the percentage of automatic transmissions has gone up and a few things such as chokes have disappeared.

Cars are definitely better and safer now. There's no doubt about that. But if you lent me a 1969 Dodge Charger in good mechanical condition for a day I could drive around town and get exactly as much done as if I was in my Hyundai. (I just hope I won't have to stop to buy gas as I'm not sure there's enough in the strategic fuel reserve at the moment.)

But if you found steering in a typical 1969 car difficult or fatiguing you are a lot better off today. So driving is now much improved for many people who are female, elderly, disabled, and/or itty bitty.

What about electric scooters, electric bikes, and segways? All much, much cheaper than a car, all much faster than walking (or biking without an electric motor).

Also, Cowen fails to mention that taco-copters (drones delivering fast food and packages) are only 5 years away. Same with flying cars, and fission power. Tons of technological progress.

This was not an adventure movie, it was a personal drama against the backdrop of the space program. I was hoping for the opposite. I think they used some of the original equipment which was interesting, but wrong in that it was old and grimey when it should have been new.

Re: cars fulfill the same role in the same way today they did in 1969. They are in every way, but they work the same way in the same form factor. They haven't enabled new/different modes of living since then (like post-war auto suburbs), they have the same form factors and same limitations. Self-driving car fleets might be something different, as could cars and roads that reliably support 200mph travel, or if cars became something different because of batteries or electrical propulsion and how they are provisioned.

One of the reasons behind the superiority of mass market car software is a democratization effect. A huge number of cars are built, so there is a large pool of money for software development and a large incentive to keep customer complaints per car very low. A car expensive enough to have a very small production run may in fact have worse software than a cheap mass-market car, unless it can share components with that car.

“most cars in operation today are not that much better than cars from 1969”

The last time I woke on a cold Chicago morning wondering if my car would start was roughly 1989.

Is it a sign of the Great Stagnation that our artists want to tell us that the most interesting aspect of the moon landing was that a man had to literally leave the planet to overcome his grief? As far as I can tell, wanting to tell that story is a sign of maturity. Yet, I bet it is such maturity that Tyler finds so stagnant.

The software for the Apollo program was actually incredibly reliable.

"Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon, rather than aborting the approach due to computer problems. In fact, the Apollo guidance software was so robust that no software bugs were found on any crewed Apollo missions, and it was adapted for use in Skylab, the Space Shuttle, and the first digital fly-by-wire systems in aircraft. Hamilton was honored by NASA in 2003, when she was presented a special award recognizing the value of her innovations in the Apollo software development. The award included the largest financial award that NASA had ever presented to any individual up to that point."

Margaret Hamilton also received a Presidential Medal of honor for leading that software development process. She was incredible.


Thanks Hobson. You’re absolutely correct. I worked on the Apollo program software. The comments on here about poor software reliability and a fake moon landing are ludicrous. Weird comments from people who have no clue.

+ 1

She was amazing.

And she was the best Wicked Witch of the West! :-)

Car buyers put 75% of the value of a car in the software. The new comfort features more than the engine/transmission control software. They assume an enclosed cabin, a reliable powertrain and a functional well-riding chassis and suspension. All of which the lowest priced cars have.

To go greater than 80 mph is the height of signaling spending given speed laws. To drive a performance vehicle in commuter traffic is the height of folly.

The powertrain advancements in automobiles in the last 30 years has been eaten up by fuel efficiency and emissions requirements. To differentiate, manufactures have put investments into comfort/access features. And increasingly, the base electronics are standard with software features providing the differentiation.

This will shift with self-driving vehicles as their electronics will, eventually, have to achieve avionics quality testing and reliability. And that will run up vehicle costs with little improvement visible to the rider.

Aircraft already have tested and reliable avionics but they're not self-flying. Even the celebrated drones are guided by a remote pilot. Don't hold your breath while you wait for your self-driving Corolla to show up.

That's the wrong comparison. An airbus A300-800 has 2 highly trained professionals flying up to 853 passengers in a 450 million dollar aircraft. My $14,000 dollar hyundai has my granddad driving it. Sticking granddad in a self driving taxi will probably soon be a cost effective way of making us safer. Removing professional pilots in a much higher stakes situation maybe not so much.

"Would they have gone to such trouble if there had been better problems to work on?"

You miss the point. Kennedy seized on this as a means of 'one upping' the Soviets, who had already put Gagarin in orbit.

I am not going to pay to watch this film. They took out the American flag to rewrite a PC version of history. I will not support that.

The flag is in it

Keep your shorts on

Where the hell do you read stuff like this?

What about the tricorn hat, powder horn, and musket?

"even cars with 200k miles can still be quite reliable nowadays."

My 2001 Honda Accord has 286,000 miles on it; I bought it in 2007 used and salvaged for $5300. I expect and hope to drive it for 250K more.

Our best cars of the 60s are amazing things. The Datsun 240Z is a splendid car. The ones that last are works of art.

We're forgetting all the Pontiac station wagons and the Zephyrs.

As for the movie, they managed to turn the moon landing into a soap opera, and half of the top 8 names on the cast list are foreigners. Then they had the Canadian playing the lead come out and say "Hey, it's not like it was some sort of American accomplishment, or anything."

"Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

Except Canadians. Screw you Canada. You and your flapping heads so full of lies.

Box Office Collection does not matter but this movie got a brilliant response over the world The Queen Episodes

once starting the machine, such demand less power, stable quality of merchandise, facultative one person in multiple machines, greatly increasing the assembly yield and quality. solid winding machine structure and speed has controlled by little or no or no or no or no controller.toroid winding machine

Comments for this post are closed