Thursday, February 28, 2013

Oboist William Bennett dies of on-stage stroke

The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

William Bennett, the longtime San Francisco Symphony oboist who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on Saturday night while performing Richard Strauss' Oboe Concerto with the orchestra in Davies Symphony Hall, died Thursday morning in a San Francisco hospital. He was 56.

Mr. Bennett, known to friends and fans alike as Bill, was an artist of extraordinary skill and imagination, whose musical contributions were a consistent highlight of any performance in which he took part. He had a distinctive tone that was both full-bodied and lyrical, and a ferocious technical ability that allowed him to make easy work of even the most challenging assignments.

Most striking, though, were the liveliness and unpredictability of his artistic choices. Whenever Mr. Bennett stepped into the spotlight, even momentarily, a listener could be sure that he would impart some original or unexpected twist to a familiar musical passage.

That artistic profile was in keeping with Mr. Bennett's personality. He was a buoyant and spirited man, quick with a chuckle or a joke, yet with a deep vein of seriousness about music. He was also an able cartoonist, whose sketches and caricatures during Symphony tours kept his colleagues amused.

"I am heartbroken by the tragic death of Bill Bennett, which has left a terrible, sad emptiness in the hearts of the whole San Francisco Symphony family," Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas said in a statement. "Bill was a great artist, an original thinker, and a wonderful man. I am saddened to have lost such a true friend." ...

[T]he Strauss concerto held a special place for him. In a 1992 interview with The Chronicle before the premiere of [John] Harbison's concerto[, which was commissioned for him], Mr. Bennett said he hoped the new piece would "be a piece that young players would hear and say, 'That's a reason for learning this instrument,' the way the Strauss concerto was for me."
I couldn't find any video of Bennett playing Strauss's Oboe Concerto, but here he is playing the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony (he's the one featured in the first minute):



And here's the second movement of Strauss's Oboe Concerto performed by one of the most acclaimed oboists, Heinz Holliger (I don't know the conductor or orchestra):



The sad news about William Bennet calls to mind Giuseppe Sinopoli, who died of a heart attack while in the middle of conducting Verdi's Aidi in Berlin in 2001.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

If people are bad at deciding what's best for themselves, is government the solution?

Ann Althouse (my mom) sums up Cass Sunstein's review of a book called Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, by Sarah Conly:

Sunstein refers to social science research that shows people actually aren't very good at making decisions for themselves. We have "present bias" (and don't pay enough attention to the future), we're bad at assessing probability, and we're "unrealistically optimistic."
Sunstein writes:
Many Americans abhor paternalism. They think that people should be able to go their own way, even if they end up in a ditch. When they run risks, even foolish ones, it isn’t anybody’s business that they do. In this respect, a significant strand in American culture appears to endorse the central argument of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In his great essay, Mill insisted that as a general rule, government cannot legitimately coerce people if its only goal is to protect people from themselves. ...

Until now, we have lacked a serious philosophical discussion of whether and how recent behavioral findings undermine Mill’s harm principle and thus open the way toward paternalism. Sarah Conly’s illuminating book Against Autonomy provides such a discussion. Her starting point is that in light of the recent findings, we should be able to agree that Mill was quite wrong about the competence of human beings as choosers. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.” With that claim in mind, Conly insists that coercion should not be ruled out of bounds....

Conly insists that mandates and bans can be much more effective than mere nudges. If the benefits justify the costs, she is willing to eliminate freedom of choice, not to prevent people from obtaining their own goals but to ensure that they do so.
Sunstein has several good objections to this theory:
Conly is right to insist that no democratic government can or should live entirely within Mill’s strictures. But in my view, she underestimates the possibility that once all benefits and all costs are considered, we will generally be drawn to approaches that preserve freedom of choice. One reason involves the bluntness of coercive paternalism and the sheer diversity of people’s tastes and situations. Some of us care a great deal about the future, while others focus intensely on today and tomorrow. This difference may make perfect sense in light not of some bias toward the present, but of people’s different economic situations, ages, and valuations. Some people eat a lot more than others, and the reason may not be an absence of willpower or a neglect of long-term goals, but sheer enjoyment of food. Our ends are hardly limited to longevity and health; our short-term goals are a large part of what makes life worth living.

Conly favors a paternalism of means, but the line between means and ends can be fuzzy, and there is a risk that well-motivated efforts to promote people’s ends will end up mischaracterizing them.... [M]eans-focused paternalists may be badly mistaken about people’s goals. Those who delay dieting may not be failing to promote their ends; they might simply care more about good meals than about losing weight.

Freedom of choice is an important safeguard against the potential mistakes of even the most well-motivated officials.... Officials may well be subject to the same kinds of errors that concern Conly in the first place.
I see at least two major problems with Sarah Conly's line of reasoning — that we're bad at making rational decisions in our personal lives, so government should remedy this problem through coercive regulations.

To be clear, I'm convinced that people are often irrational. That's obvious without even looking at all that social science research (though the research is worthwhile for pinpointing exactly how we're irrational). I think we can all agree that people don't always act in their own best interests. That's not controversial.

But it doesn't follow logically that government regulations are the solution.

Problem 1: We're all just a bunch of flawed people. If people are irrational, then laws — written by politicians who are up for reelection, enforced by police officers, and interpreted by judges who are possibly biased and definitely busy — might also be irrational. Cass Sunstein makes a similar point above, but I'd go further and say government is often more irrational than individuals: even if regulators are rational, it often serves their interests to regulate in a way that doesn't serve yours — because they're acquiescing to corporate lobbyists, or because the public is unlikely to notice how the regulations eventually led to bad consequences.

Government isn't an all-purpose social-utility machine just waiting to help us make better decisions, if only we'd be willing to give up our stubborn adherence to the principle of individual autonomy. Even if we were to set aside all our cherished notions about how liberty is intrinsically good, it would still make sense to be skeptical of whether regulators know or care about the full consequences of their regulations.

Problem 2: If helping people involves insulating them from the natural consequences of their actions, this could "nudge" them to be more irrational. For instance, everyone knows that students sometimes act irrationally: they procrastinate, they write substandard papers when they're capable of doing better, they turn work in late, etc. Given these realities, it's an open question how teachers should nudge students to do less of this kind of thing. The teacher who's willing to give any grade from an A+ to an F- might be more effective than the teacher who gives everyone a B+ or A-.

The other day I blogged Evgeny Morozov's critique of "smart" kitchens gadgets:
To grasp the intellectual poverty that awaits us in a smart world, look no further than recent blueprints for a "smart kitchen"—an odd but persistent goal of today's computer scientists, most recently in designs from the University of Washington and Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan.

Once we step into this magic space, we are surrounded by video cameras that recognize whatever ingredients we hold in our hands. Tiny countertop robots inform us that, say, arugula doesn't go with boiled carrots or that lemon grass tastes awful with chocolate milk. This kitchen might be smart, but it's also a place where every mistake, every deviation from the master plan, is frowned upon. It's a world that looks more like a Taylorist factory than a place for culinary innovation. Rest assured that lasagna and sushi weren't invented by a committee armed with formulas or with "big data" about recent consumer wants.

Creative experimentation propels our culture forward. That our stories of innovation tend to glorify the breakthroughs and edit out all the experimental mistakes doesn't mean that mistakes play a trivial role. As any artist or scientist knows, without some protected, even sacred space for mistakes, innovation would cease.
Being free to make mistakes and suffer the consequences — as a direct result of your mistakes — is vital to having a functioning society. We should be wary of proposals to solve this supposed problem. The remedy may have side effects worse than the disease.

I assume that Sarah Conly would respond that she's talking about irrational behavior with long-term consequences, which don't give us immediate feedback and which we're bad at foreseeing. First of all, I'm not convinced that obesity, to use the article's main example, is so distant in time from the behavior that causes it. If you go on a diet, you can often notice the results, or lack thereof, pretty soon. So she might be overstating how much this is really about an inability to grasp long-term consequences.

But more fundamentally: why should I expect government to be better at considering my long-term future than I am? Are politicians truly concerned about what happens to me decades from now? I don't know. What I do know is that I care about what happens to me decades from now, and that politicians care about winning the next election. So the idea that government is generally in a better position to look out for our own interests than we are seems to be seriously flawed.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Are "smart" gadgets going to take over our lives?

In an article called "Is Smart Making Us Dumb?" (or, in the more comprehensible heading at the top of the browser window, "Are Smart Gadgets Making Us Dumb?"), Evgeny Morozov writes this in the Wall Street Journal:

A revolution in technology is allowing previously inanimate objects—from cars to trash cans to teapots—to talk back to us and even guide our behavior. But how much control are we willing to give up? ...

BinCam looks just like your average trash bin, but with a twist: Its upper lid is equipped with a smartphone that snaps a photo every time the lid is shut. The photo is then uploaded to Mechanical Turk, the Amazon-run service that lets freelancers perform laborious tasks for money. In this case, they analyze the photo and decide if your recycling habits conform with the gospel of green living. Eventually, the photo appears on your Facebook page.

You are also assigned points, as in a game, based on how well you are meeting the recycling challenge. The household that earns the most points "wins." In the words of its young techie creators, BinCam is designed "to increase individuals' awareness of their food waste and recycling behavior," in the hope of changing their habits.

BinCam has been made possible by the convergence of two trends that will profoundly reshape the world around us. First, thanks to the proliferation of cheap, powerful sensors, the most commonplace objects can finally understand what we do with them—from umbrellas that know it's going to rain to shoes that know they're wearing out—and alert us to potential problems and programmed priorities. These objects are no longer just dumb, passive matter. With some help from crowdsourcing or artificial intelligence, they can be taught to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible behavior (between recycling and throwing stuff away, for example) and then punish or reward us accordingly—in real time. ...

In 2010, Google Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette told an Australian news program that his company "is really an engineering company, with all these computer scientists that see the world as a completely broken place." Just last week in Singapore, he restated Google's notion that the world is a "broken" place whose problems, from traffic jams to inconvenient shopping experiences to excessive energy use, can be solved by technology. The futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, a favorite of the TED crowd, also likes to talk about how "reality is broken" but can be fixed by making the real world more like a videogame, with points for doing good. From smart cars to smart glasses, "smart" is Silicon Valley's shorthand for transforming present-day social reality and the hapless souls who inhabit it.

But there is reason to worry about this approaching revolution. As smart technologies become more intrusive, they risk undermining our autonomy by suppressing behaviors that someone somewhere has deemed undesirable. Smart forks inform us that we are eating too fast. Smart toothbrushes urge us to spend more time brushing our teeth. Smart sensors in our cars can tell if we drive too fast or brake too suddenly.

These devices can give us useful feedback, but they can also share everything they know about our habits with institutions whose interests are not identical with our own. Insurance companies already offer significant discounts to drivers who agree to install smart sensors in order to monitor their driving habits. How long will it be before customers can't get auto insurance without surrendering to such surveillance? And how long will it be before the self-tracking of our health (weight, diet, steps taken in a day) graduates from being a recreational novelty to a virtual requirement? ...

To grasp the intellectual poverty that awaits us in a smart world, look no further than recent blueprints for a "smart kitchen"—an odd but persistent goal of today's computer scientists, most recently in designs from the University of Washington and Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan.

Once we step into this magic space, we are surrounded by video cameras that recognize whatever ingredients we hold in our hands. Tiny countertop robots inform us that, say, arugula doesn't go with boiled carrots or that lemon grass tastes awful with chocolate milk. This kitchen might be smart, but it's also a place where every mistake, every deviation from the master plan, is frowned upon. It's a world that looks more like a Taylorist factory than a place for culinary innovation. Rest assured that lasagna and sushi weren't invented by a committee armed with formulas or with "big data" about recent consumer wants.

Creative experimentation propels our culture forward. That our stories of innovation tend to glorify the breakthroughs and edit out all the experimental mistakes doesn't mean that mistakes play a trivial role. As any artist or scientist knows, without some protected, even sacred space for mistakes, innovation would cease.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Penelope Trunk on why universal pre-school is a bad idea, and what would be better

Penelope Trunk says this (I recommend reading the whole thing to get her full argument with links):

Kids with educated parents do not need to go to preschool. So preschool primarily benefits kids with uneducated parents. Preschool can help those kids start out on equal footing with kids of educated parents.

Children who have educated parents should be playing when they are preschool age. They learn through play. They do not need to learn to sit still and stand in line and play only when the teacher says play.

The idea that kids should learn to read, write, and add when they are very young has been thoroughly disproven, and in fact, this sort of structured environment is so bad for boys that it puts them on an early path to being labeled low performers. This is why the rich don’t even bother with preschool—they know their kids will be fine without it. ...

Here is my proposed solution. First, promote marriage. Yes, it’s judgmental and pushing cultural values onto individual citizens. But so is universal pre-K. Marriage, however, is much more successful at giving kids a good chance in life: keeping a marriage together decreases the chance of a child living in poverty by 80%.

And let’s go after deadbeat dads. The majority of low-income kids are not living with their dad. I do not believe that low-income moms are different than high-income moms; I think l0w-income moms also would choose to be home with their kids over working full-time.

New York City increased the amount of child-support collected by 50% in the last ten years. We can use the same tactics across the country.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why President Obama is wrong on the minimum wage

In tonight's State of the Union address, President Obama said:

We know our economy’s stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages. But today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. That’s why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, 19 states have chosen to bump theirs even higher. Tonight, let’s declare that, in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty -- and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.
No, let's not. No matter what we "declare," there is going to be some amount of poverty in a country of 300 million people — and Obama's proposal would increase that amount. Raising the minimum wage creates more poverty by preventing people from being able to find employers who are willing to pay them. The law can only force employers to pay the minimum wage to the workers they do hire; it can't force them to hire anyone. Make it more expensive to hire workers, and not as many workers will get hired. The difference between $7.25 an hour and $9 an hour is tiny next to the difference between having a job (which can lead to getting better jobs) and not having a job.

Also, why should the question be whether you could single-handedly support two children on the minimum wage? The minimum wage applies to everyone. Not everyone is single-handedly raising two children! To forbid workers in other circumstances from getting a job paying a certain amount just because someone would want to earn a higher amount is simply cruel.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A good question on the minimum wage

Here's a question posted at Cafe Hayek:

If the legislated minimum-wage rises in the U.S., which of the following two people is most likely to benefit from that rise: (1) Joe, a black 17-year-old recent graduate of a New York City public school, raised by a single mother, living in a very poor section of inner-city New York, or (2) Jim, a white 17-year-old recent graduate of an exclusive private school, raised in a two-parent household, living in Manhattan’s very wealthy Upper East Side?
The Cafe Hayek post doesn't give an answer, and points out that it's "not a trick question."

Consider this scholarly article about a 2011 study of the minimum wage. From the intro:
[We] analyzed the unemployment rates in contiguous counties with different minimum wage rates in the Pacific Northwest. [We] compared unemployment rates in geographically contiguous counties of the two states that had the largest difference in minimum wage rates, both in absolute terms ($2.48) and as a percentage of the federal minimum wage (48%). The study examined this gap in the context of a consistent increase in one state’s minimum wage rate over several years, while the other state’s wage rate remained unchanged. The analysis of the data reveals that, from an economic perspective, there is a strong correlation between a higher legislated minimum wage rate and a higher unemployment rate. The results of this study suggest that, because of this disemployment effect, minimum wage laws indeed may frustrate the goals advanced as their justification ...

Friday, February 8, 2013

What happens when the environment has "rights"?

NPR reports (via):

Ecuador prides itself on being pro-environment. Its constitution gives nature special rights. But Ecuador is a relatively poor country that could desperately use the money from the oil.

In 2007, Ecuador's president proposed a way around the dilemma: Ecuador would promise to leave the forest untouched if countries in the developed world would promise to give Ecuador half the value of the oil — $3.6 billion.

"He proposed that we want to keep the oil there," says Ivonne A-Baki, who works for Ecuador's government. "What we need in exchange is compensation." These days, A-Baki is traveling the world, asking for contributions. She chooses her words carefully....

"The joke we always used to always talk about was, you know, 'Give me the money or I'll shoot the trees,' " says Billy Pizer, a former deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy under President Obama.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Is Obama's drone war giving us exactly what we want?

Matt Lewis thinks so:

President Obama has been consistent in practicing what I call "politically correct warfare" — which is to say that for most Americans, these drone strikes are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

And here's the ugly truth: Obama is giving us what we want.

We have an unspoken agreement with the president. Obama never promised America he wouldn't kill people more aggressively than his predecessor. But with a wink and a nod, he gave us plausible deniability.

Americans, it turns out, don't really have the stomach for the unseemly business of taking prisoners, extracting information from prisoners, and then (maybe) going through the emotional, time consuming, and costly business of a trial.

American citizens want someone who will make the big, bad world disappear. Problems only exist if we have to confront them. Obama has made warfare more convenient for us — and less emotionally taxing. We should thank him.