Month: June 2013

Benjamin Britten at 100

I very much liked Neil Powell, Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music.  Also very good is Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century.  They are both also useful for understanding English intellectual life during the 20th century, most of all Auden but even Keynes and also the broader history of homosexuality in England.  Both are already out in the UK, where I picked them up earlier in the year, and both will make my best of the year list in late November.

Here is a good Anthony Tommasini survey of Britten at 100.  I will offer these bits

The Britten pieces you are most likely to enjoy: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, that disc has Les Illuminations and Nocturne too and is the single best Britten disc to buy, and also A Ceremony of Carols.

The ones I think are best: Cello Symphony, Winter Words (song cycle), and perhaps Billy BuddWar RequiemNocturne is a powerful spare late work.  I like Curlew River for its connection to Balinese music, although I would not put it among his best compositions from a strictly musical point of view.

My most significant Britten heresy: I’ve never enjoyed listening to Peter Grimes and I find most of the experience oppressive.  More generally, for much of my life I never felt close to Britten’s music, as it made me crave Stravinsky and Mahler instead.  But I’ve listened to it quite a bit since January and have enjoyed it more than expected.

Two points: I think he understood the English language better than any other major composer, and how he sets and understands a text is without parallel, in English at least.  Furthermore as a conductor or pianist he is superb, try his Brandenburg Concerti or his piano on Schubert’s Winterreise, Peter Pears singing, among other works.  Those are two of my favorite recordings in all of classical music.

My model for how the Fed thinks about withdrawing QE

Bernanke believes QE works, but having been caught off-guard once before, in 2007-2008, he doesn’t fully trust his own judgment.  He fears some risk of bubbles, or excess private disintermediation, in either case resulting from low interest rates.  He lets Tarullo and Stein carry related messages to the markets to signal possible fears without having to endorse them.

Let’s say he assigns these risky scenarios a fairly small p = 0.05.  Still, another financial collapse would be a disaster, all the more for political economy reasons.  Bernanke has spent down his own political capital and these days Republicans are more likely to be obstructionists.  Fear of that disaster leads him to withdraw QE sooner than his “most likely to be true” opinion thinks prudent.  Economists respond by defending the “most likely to be true” opinion, and by arguing moralistically rather than probabilistically.  That doesn’t convince Bernanke, because said economists can only convince him that they are likely right, not that he should obliterate his p = 0.05 fear of being wrong.  The current policy course continues, early withdrawal from QE is contemplated, and economists complain all the more.  Outside observers find it hard to understand the disconnect.

Here are some related probabilistic considerations from Brad DeLong.

How critical are the early years of life?

“Early intervention” to benefit children is one of those sacred cows which I consider unproven and which also is cited in far too malleable a fashion.  Here is a new paper by Alan Rushton, Margaret Grant, Julia Feast, and John Simmonds, probably gated for many of you, but worth a read if you can.

The abstract is too wordy, but the study is a follow-up on one hundred Chinese girls who first lived in Chinese orphanages, were later adopted into the UK, and who now are 40 to 50 years old.  The orphanage involved deprivation and even some malnutrition (55% of sample).  There was basic medical care and supervision, although no general one-to-one caregiver relationship.

Of the initial hundred children, 98 were still alive and 72 of those responded to the survey, which also involved extensive follow-up interviews.

Most entered the orphanage very early, in the first year of life, with a mean of three months old.  Age at exit varied between eight months and 83 months, with a mean of 23 months, and with a mean of 20 months spent in the care of the orphanage.

Compared to a general sample of adopted British women, and also UK non-adopted women, the adopted Chinese women did not appear to be at greater risk of mental illness, nor did they appear to have elevated health risks.  There were no statistically significant differences when it came to “life control” or “life satisfaction.”

This single study is hardly dispositive, but it should raise some skeptical eyebrows.  Recovering from a bad start, in this data set, appears eminently possible, provided of course that the environment improves.

Addendum: Here are some observations on Gerard Debreu’s early life (jstor).

For the pointer I thank a loyal MR reader.

A simple public choice theory of universal surveillance

Let’s say that everything is known about everybody, or can be known with some effort.  The people who have the most to lose are powerful people who have committed some wrongdoing, or who have done something which can be presented as wrongdoing, whether or not it is.  Derelicts with poor credit ratings should, in relative terms, flourish or at least hold steady at the margin.

It is not obvious that the President, Congress, and Supreme Court should welcome such an arrangement.  Nor should top business elites.  More power is given to the NSA, or to those who can access NSA and related sources, and how many interest groups favor that?

Therein lies a chance for reform.

Big Data, Big Government, Big Brother

In addition to monitoring who you call and when, your email, and your internet searches the government also has access to all of your credit card purchases. We usually don’t think about purchases as communication but what people buy says more about most people than does their email. Buying behavior can be used to predict all manner of information about your political views, affiliations, sexual activity, marriage quality and much more.

Where this all is leading

I.B.M.’s Watson, the supercomputing technology that defeated human Jeopardy! champions in 2011, is a prime example of the power of data-intensive artificial intelligence.

Watson-style computing, analysts said, is precisely the technology that would make the ambitious data-collection program of the N.S.A. seem practical. Computers could instantly sift through the mass of Internet communications data, see patterns of suspicious online behavior and thus narrow the hunt for terrorists.

Both the N.S.A. and the Central Intelligence Agency have been testing Watson in the last two years, said a consultant who has advised the government and asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak.

There is more here, pointer is from Claudia Sahm.

Do U.S. tech companies now have legal troubles in the EU?

Laws in this area can be tricky to interpret, so digest this caution, but I found this analysis from Bloomberg BusinessWeek of interest:

The Safe Harbor scheme (not recognized by the Germans, incidentally) allows U.S. tech firms such as Google to self-certify, to say that they conform to EU-style data protection standards even if their country’s laws do not. It’s not quite that simple—these companies really do need to jump through some hoops before they claim compliance; just ask Heroku—but it does largely come down to trust.

EU data protection regulators have already called for the system to be toughened up through the introduction of third-party audits, but frankly it now looks like the whole system is in tatters. U.S. companies claiming Safe Harbor compliance include Google, Yahoo, Microsoft (MSFT), Facebook, and AOL (AOL), all of which now appear to be part (willingly or otherwise) of the NSA’s PRISM scheme.

As EU data protection rules don’t say it’s OK for foreign military units to record or monitor the communications of European citizens—heck, even local governments aren’t supposed to be doing that—the Safe Harbor program now looks questionable to say the least. A lot of people have already pointed to the U.S. Patriot Act as a threat, and now the effects of that legislation are plain to see.

The update at the beginning of the article reads:

I’ll admit I am shocked to have received this response from the European Commission’s Home Affairs department to my request for comment, with particular regard to the impact on EU citizens’ privacy: “We do not have any comments. This is an internal U.S. matter.”

I don’t see kicking U.S. tech companies out of Europe as a promising way of starting U.S./EU free trade negotiations.  One possible legal “out” is discussed here.  If anyone is going to drive this issue forward, it is likely the European public, who of course still can insist on tougher standards.  Here is one description of Safe Harbor policies.  The tech companies themselves may fear a loss of international competitiveness, or that Safe Harbor standards will be toughened, you will find a discussion of commercial worries and their potential impact here.

The innovations issue of *The New York Times*

You will find it here, and clicking through the side show of previous innovations, and their history, is fascinating.  I enjoyed this part of the accompanying write-up from Hugo Lindgren:

On his blog, Marginal Revolution, Cowen furthers his point by declaring sarcastically that “there is no great stagnation” and providing links to silly products or applications of technology, like a machine that tosses popcorn into your mouth from up to 15 feet away.  It’s called The Popinator.  Someone thought this up — first as a marketing stunt, but now they’re trying to make an actual product.  Someone also thought up the Ostrich Pillow, a big, comfy thing that you can stick your head into and nap in public places.  My favorite of Cowen’s collection is a gun for shooting salt pellets at insects — the Bug-A-Salt!  I also like the remote-controlled cockroach, a technology which has not yet been commercialized.  But maybe one day.

Cowen’s point is that under the hood of our hallowed free market is a bazaar of nutty, half-cocked ideas which do not advance the greater cause of humanity one tiny bit.  But there’s another interpretation, too, which is: The sheer volume and range of these inventions demonstrate a rapidly growing range of problem solvers with the tools to turn their ideas into tangible things.

You can read about the history of the ant farm here.

Restrictions on student athlete transfer

When an athlete chooses to transfer, three sets of rules can be involved: those of the NCAA.; those of the conference in which the university competes; and those that accompany the national letter of intent, a contract that athletes sign while still in high school to announce their intention to attend a university.

“It’s entirely slanted to the coach’s side,” said Don Jackson, a lawyer who runs the Sports Group in Montgomery, Ala., and who has represented dozens of athletes attempting to transfer to a university of their choice. “Once the student-athlete signs that national letter of intent, it’s essentially a contract of adhesion. They have limited rights.”

Universities have long sought to block student-athletes from transferring to a rival program. Alabama’s football team, for example, would not be expected to let a star player go to Auburn. But the impulse to limit the student-athlete’s options has been heightened to the point that coaches are now blacklisting dozens of universities.

From the NYT, here is more, none of it pretty, but of course lower-tier universities will claim they are making big investments in improving the quality of diamonds in the rough.  The funny thing is — if I may sound Caplanian for a moment — no one at these schools seems to demand similar restrictions on transfers of the students.

Assorted links

1. Norway’s new bestseller.

2. Dani Rodrik is moving to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

3. Humorous Russian reactions to the Putin divorce.

4. There are few recent Chinese borrowings in English.  But they may build a new canal in Nicaragua.

5. The problem is too little dynamism, not too much, and this relates to TGS vs. “Race Against the Machine” as explanations of our recent past.

6. Prosthetics and Yakuza.

Should the Detroit Museum sell off some of its art?

Virginia Postrel says yes:

…great artworks shouldn’t be held hostage by a relatively unpopular museum in a declining region. The cause of art would be better served if they were sold to institutions in growing cities where museum attendance is more substantial and the visual arts are more appreciated than they’ve ever been in Detroit. Art lovers should stop equating the public good with the status quo.

On the fiscal front, Detroit has a much stronger claim on its museum’s assets than the typical U.S. city government. During the 1920s, when the local economy was booming and the museum was still building its collection, the DIA relied on annual appropriations from the city not just to fund operations, as many museums do, but also to buy art. That marked “a significant departure from the norm for major American art museums,” observed art historian Jeffrey Abt in his detailed 2001 history “A Museum on the Verge.” City dollars paid for the core of the museum’s collection, including the Van Gogh, Bruegel, Matisse and Bellini.

We easily can imagine that more people would see those artworks if they were located in Los Angeles or other larger and growing cities.  Nonetheless I believe such a sale would set off alarm bells for conservatives, related to Arnold Kling’s “civilization vs. barbarism” axis.  Detroit would be sending a signal that it will never even try to go back to what it was, much as if a university spent down most of its endowment and relied on borrowing.  Still, perhaps that is where we are at with Detroit.

Another issue is that deaccessioning makes all donors feel less confidence in the stewards of their gifts.  If I see Detroit selling off its artworks, should a collector donate his Haitian paintings to the Figge Museum, in Davenport, Iowa?  What if the farmland bubble bursts?  Might they sell those paintings to Miami or maybe western North Dakota?  How many donors know that Detroit has this special history of municipally funded art?  But again, letting Detroit and the Detroit Museum rot also won’t do much for donor confidence at the national level; it is a precarious institution in any case and perhaps the purchaser will take better care of the pictures and also market them more effectively (otherwise why buy them?).

In any case, I expect previous norms against deaccessioning to weaken with the onset of The Great Reset.

The loss of privacy and the collapse of creative ambiguity

Remember the regime of creative ambiguity when it came to Fed bailouts?  You kind of expected one, but weren’t totally sure what might come, and so the banking sector felt safe but not absolutely guaranteed on the side of the creditors.  Post-Lehman, those days seem to be over and now the moral hazard problem looms larger.

Perhaps we had a regime of creative ambiguity when it came to privacy and government surveillance.  You (or at least I) thought the government was spying on you, but there was some ambiguity as to how much.  You could acquiesce to the previous status quo, without fearing it would get worse, because it was not commonly recognized public knowledge that so much spying was going on.  Maybe you figured you could tolerate a 0.8 probability of that level of spying because there were checks on it becoming worse, more extensive, more selective, and so on.

But now that previous level of spying is common knowledge (or at least part of it is common knowledge, I suspect there are further revelations to come).  At the same time, the IRS, Verizon, and other scandals are common knowledge too, all of a sudden.

The old equilibrium is perhaps no longer stable.  People may even be fine with that level of spying, if they think it means fewer successful terror attacks.  But if they acquiesce to the previous level of spying too openly, the level of spying on them will get worse.  Which they do not want.

On top of all that, the common knowledge of the old spying also may make the old spying less effective in purely practical terms, as potential suspects adjust their behavior.  That also may lead a risk-averse government to pursue additional and more intrusive means of spying.

So if the status quo of a few weeks ago is no longer an equilibrium, what happens next?

I predict we will see more spying and more intrusive spying.  You should not think that recent events will simply cement a previous status quo in place, rather it moves us down a very particular path and probably makes the entire problem worse.  The age of creative ambiguity in surveillance is over and probably not for the better.