Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Too Straight to be Queer, Too Queer to be Straight

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, March 21, 2008 | Category: | 0 comments

Before getting on to this let me state the following for those of you who, for whatever reason, don't know it. I am (in no particular order and with no hierarchy of ranking) a 26-year-old, male, heterosexual, married, white, non-religious, South African man studying a PhD in Economics at the Università di Siena, Italy.

One of the things that I have wondered about for a significant period of time is exclusivity in movements. Specifically in activism surrounding race and issues of sexuality.

This morning I was reading this article from z-net about the LGBT movement and how young LGBT individuals see the movement and how they believe that it is misguided in its attempts (in the US) to be so continually focused on equal marriage rights for LGBT individuals. What immediately came to my mind is that, once again, I was reading an article about LGBT individuals, asking questions of LGBT individuals and why they thought that the LGBT movement was becoming unsustainable. There were no references whatsoever about recruiting non-LGBT individuals to the movement. None. Why?

In the article they also had this photo:
Subtitled: Queer youth march in Springfield, Massachusetts—photo from

From which the question, "Where are the non-queer youth?" follows. Where are the non-queers who could be marching in solidarity?

I have marched against discrimination towards PLWAs (People Living With Aids), for rights to medication, for gender and race equality, and against abuse of women and children. All of these movements have, to some greater or lesser extent, identified some salient descriptor of my identity (semi-summarized above) and allowed me access to fight for the movement, to be active on the movement's behalf. However, when it comes to sexuality I have often felt, validly or not, that there was some kind of exclusivity about sexuality that I, as a heterosexual male (and therefore as part of the oppressing class maybe?) could not understand, or to which I could not relate in the LGBT movement.

Before I get onto this, I am going to relate some personal anecdotes and experiences. When I was at high school (a traditional, religious, single sex college) I was continuously labeled as 'gay', 'fag' and 'queer' (whatever these terms mean to adolescent boys) on account of being different: enjoying acting, singing in the choir, being able to dance, being liberal, being non-religious. I questioned my sexuality and asked myself repeatedly 'Are they right? Am I confused about liking women? Am I meant to like men?' These may not seem relevant to many LGBT individuals who do actually prefer individuals of their sex, but to me it was particularly worrying, was I wrong about what I liked? Did a number of conservative, homophobic individuals have some insight into my personality that I did not? Was I too queer to be straight?

Luckily for me, I ended up in Drama School for my first year of university (after a gap year). But the people at Drama School were equally prejudiced towards me, in a way different to, but not unlike, people had behaved towards me at high school. Individual homosexual lecturers ridiculed me when I wanted to play a rugby match, other individuals tacitly excluded me from social interactions because I wasn't arty enough, I didn't smoke marijuana and I dressed too preppie (when I thought about what I dressed about at all) and I really, really liked women. I was too straight to be queer.

Whereas in high school my behaviour was sanctioned because it was labeled as 'gay'. In drama school it wasn't 'gay' (again in a very, very broad definition of gay) enough. Now, I understand in hindsight that for numerous individuals who had recently finished school and who had wanted to leave behind individuals who played rugby, who dressed preppie, who were tall & sporty, these were weird reminders of things away from which they wanted to move. I was as symbolic to them of things that they disliked, or which they feared as I had been to the conservative, homophobic individuals in my high school (who were a minority I must actually state).

What I wonder about though is that surely instead of alienating individuals like myself the LGBT movement should be embracing us. When I was at university during Orientation Week, I would always stop by the stall for the Rainbow Society, the 'Gay and Lesbian Society' on campus. I once asked one of the representatives, 'What about hetero people?' the reply was that 'Oh, they're welcome too.' I wondered though how we were meant to know that.

So, if the same position still stands, both nationally and internationally, with respect to LGBT movements, how are non-LGBT people meant to know that they can offer their services, not only that, but that LGBT individuals actually want them to do so. When are we going to be targeted by your media? When are you going to be asking us to help? LGBT issues comprise an area that still requires momentous amounts of activism and that will require more in the future. I want to ask, am I as a white, heterosexual, married, male welcome?

Post Script:
For anyone interested, I stopped doing drama. I picked up Economics, completed a Bachelor of Social Science in English Literature and Economics, completed my Masters in Economics, then a Masters in Creative Writing and, as I stated at the beginning, am now doing my PhD in Economics.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Science and Technology

Posted by Simon Halliday | Monday, March 17, 2008 | Category: | 0 comments

So, I read a number of blogs and other things on neuroscience, psychology and economics. I also try to keep up to date, if I can, with little things going on in the Science world. Anyway, one of the things that piqued my curiosity was this article on Chinese-Indian cooperation in science.

The main thesis is that China and India collectively have about 38% of the world's total population. Moreover, they both have scientists educated domestically and internationally who are capable of improving their domestic scientific output. Both China and India are well aware of this fact. The governments of both countries are supposedly trying their best to ensure that as many as possible (though still not enough) of their compatriots who are educated abroad return home. Moreover, if they can achieve a state of cooperation in the sciences between China and India, then they will have a hub of software and hardware driven research that could rival the best anywhere. American isn't respected for much in China, but the article says that it is still respected for its science. While the US cuts back on government-based investment in S&T (according to the article, but not according to the NYTimes - it was cut last year in December, but a new budget for 2009 was proposed with a different agenda), China and India are promoting increases in government spending on both. Scientists in both countries hope that this will aid in the eventual peaceful resolution of political border antagonism between the countries. Who knows?

What is more important to me is that there are better ways to resolve political problems than we often consider. Moreover, there are also ways to try to increase progress in countries, and as a consequence speed up development, that do not require the sanctioning by government of the activities of individuals. What I mean here is that there may be intercountry antagonism (such as the Sino-Indian border conflicts) which may be circumvented and possibly prevented in the future by reinforcement of cooperation elsewhere. Which is very cool in my mind.

It reminds me how we need to get back on track in South Africa. South Africa, which was previously a leader as a developing country, is now falling behind numerous South East Asian countries that have invested far more in education and the sciences than South Africa has. (Which, if I remember correctly is in this paper). South Africa desperately needs to increase investment in the physical and engineering sciences. Not only this but high school graduation rates of mathematics (at higher grade), science and chemistry need to improve rather than continue on the downward spiral that has been seen (ok, this may be hyperbole). One of the things I worry about is that South African education officials state that education is improving, without noting how there aren't dramatic improvements in the sciences. Sadly, growth is not driven by the arts, or the social sciences. Growth is driven by entrepreneurship and the sciences. I don't necessarily agree with how the mechanism works (i.e. philosophically), but there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that increased growth goes hand-in-hand with development in science and technology graduation rates (and also with the high school math and science grad rates I commented on previously). These aren't highlighted in everyday policy discussions in newspapers, though some do admittedly bring them up. Anyway, I could rant on about this more, but I'm going to leave it for the moment. Suffice to say that I don't think JZ would necessarily take cognizance of this and I don't believe he would surround himself with people conducive to such ideas. Intriguing indeed.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Strada di Pieve al Bozzone

Posted by Simon Halliday | Sunday, March 16, 2008 | Category: | 1 comments

We took a walk down our road today. We try to do walks around and about our place every so often, so you'll get photos here and there. We were walking towards a place we were looking at for some friends to stay. It's quite a walk from where we are, but still on our road which runs all the way to Pieve al Bozzone (Hence the Strada di...).

Anyway, here are the photographs.

Amy, not as called as she might be, but looking over the fields toward the pond.

The road we had just walked, up the hill and over the meadows. So to speak.

A particularly enchanting tree, splitting down its middle.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Baked Spinach, Cheese and Eggplant

Posted by Simon Halliday | Saturday, March 08, 2008 | Category: | 0 comments

3 Medium Melanzane (eggplants)

Coarse cooking salt

Vegetable oil

1 Large Brown Onion, chopped finely

2 Cloves of Garlic, crushed and separated (each clove goes somewhere)

3 Medium Tomatoes, chopped

400g Tin of Tomatoes, crushed

½ Cup Fresh Oregano

2 Tsp Sugar

500g Spinach, trimmed

250g Ricotta Cheese

1 Egg, lightly beaten

½ Tsp Nutmeg

½ Cup Grated Cheese

Cheese Sauce

50g Butter

2 Tbl Sp. Flour

1 ½ Cups Milk

1 Cup Grated Cheese

Cut eggplant into slices, place on a wire rack and sprinkle with the coarse salt. Leave to stand for ten minutes, then rinse, and leave on absorbent paper. After a further ten minutes, remove them from the absorbent paper and shallow fry them, in batches, in the vegetable oil until lightly browned on both sides. Drain them on more absorbent paper. I also used a bit of butter here, on the advice of Amy, which definitely gives them a nice bit of flavour. I didn't want to use too much oil for the shallow frying.

Cook onion and garlic until soft. Add the fresh tomatoes and cook, while stirring, until the tomatoes are soft. Add the crushed, tinned tomatoes, with all the juice; the oregano and the sugar. Note here that I didn't have any oregano, I added some dried oregano and some chopped fresh basil which was also really tasty. Leave this to simmer, uncovered, until it is reduced to half.

In the interim, clean and trim the spinach. Then boil until just wilted. We added a bit of bicarb and salt to the water when boiling the spinach in order to retain some colour. After boiling, squeeze off any excess water (Amy pressed it into our colander, which seemed to work well, they never tell you 'how' to do certain things in these recipes, How does one squeeze spinach properly?) chop the spinach coarsely. Combine the spinach, ricotta cheese, garlic and nutmeg in a bowl mixing it well.

To prepare the cheese sauce first melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour until the mixture is thick and bubbling. Gradually add the milk, stirring the whole while. Once this mixture has thickened somewhat, start to add the cheese, stirring in slowly (don't just gooi it in). The recipe says to use Cheddar Cheese, but trust an Australian recipe for Italian food not to realise that YOU CAN'T GET CHEDDAR CHEESE IN ITALY! So you, we used mixed grated cheese, or formaggio grattugiato – basically Parmesan and others. It turned out really well.

Once you have prepared all of the above, oil a decent oven-proof dish and use 1/3 of the eggplant as a base layer on the bottom. Then pour the tomato and onion mixture over this. Make a second layer of eggplant, which you cover with the ricotta and spinach mix. Add the remaining eggplant as a final vegetable layer and cover this with the cheese sauce. Sprinkle some cheese on top of this. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, until it is light and golden on the top.

It makes a fantastic main meal, or complements other meats nicely. We supplemented it with a good bottle of Chianti that I was given as a gift for proof-reading some stuff as a favour to one of my classmates: Conti Serristori Chianti Classico. What fun! Hope you enjoy the preparation and the food itself as much as we did.

Apologies for the second blurry picture. We were being silly and didn't check it. Also, we have no control over our heinous wine glasses, they are part of the package in our semi-furnished home.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Making of an Economist

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, March 07, 2008 | Category: | 0 comments

I have long wondered what specifically makes an individual economist the way that they are. An associate of mine back in Cape Town, Mandisi Majavu, made me aware of this paper and I was wondering what others thought of it. It's called The Making of An Economist Redux (JEP, 2005), by Prof. David Colander and comments on a number of the top graduate schools in the States. Thoughts? Opinions?

You can get the paper at this link.

And also, for those of you who care, you can see in this Q&A from Freakonomics at the NY Times that Hal Varian uses Linux.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Long-awaited update

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, March 06, 2008 | Category: | 0 comments

Hello Dear Friends and Family,

Well, it has been some time and I haven't written anything. Amy has been the one keeping many of you informed about our life here since our arrival. So yes, my life, apart from celebrating being married to my lovely wife, has been filled with my studies. Not too much exciting there. It's the typical first year of a PhD Economics program. Gruelling work on quite unbelievably boring, yet occasionally exciting stuff. Other than studying, Amy and I try to go in to town to do the occasional socialising with my classmates, or our shopping, or just wandering around Siena, beautiful city that it is. We haven't quite gotten the whole fare passagio (strolling through the city aimlessly) thing that the Senesi do, but hey. We do however enjoy our walks close to our home around the countryside, especially now that it is occasionally warmer, the views are fantastic, you can smell aromas from fig trees, and simply revel in the beauty of a sun dappled olive grove. Very rejuvenating.

At the moment I am writing exams. I recently wrote my exams for Macroeconomics and Microeconomics. Macro was a particularly difficult exam, but hopefully I will pass it. Ditto re: Micro. As is typical in these things, a pattern has emerged. Two years ago the Macroeconomics exam was difficult, then they made it substantially easier last year, which meant that in response that had to make it more difficult this year. Oh the woes of dynamic systems buzzing about equilibrium!

Other than these exams, Amy and I have joined an Italian class offered to the PhD students at the Università. The first class was loads of fun with Amy and I particularly enjoying how slowly and steadily the teacher spoke. The entire two hours we all just spoke Italian, which was really good. What made it more fun for us is that we aren't in the 'beginners' class. Learning to say “Mi chiamo Simon” (My name is Simon) yet again would have been mind-numbingly boring. Amy and I are also putting in our own effort otherwise by reading out loud in Italian to one another from a couple of Italian books we've bought, as well as watching Boston Legal (which I bought last year) in Italian, with English subtitles. All of this is of course quite unrealistic relative to actual speech with real Italians, but we hope to be able to hold normal conversations with real Italians (and yes this term must, of necessity, be highlighted).

Also, so you all know, to deal with the stress of studying I have taken, as I do, to baking. I recently managed to use various recipes to come up with an amalgamated Banana Muffins of Joy and Loveliness (© pending) recipe. Having made the mixture I would pop the baking tray into the oven while making morning coffee and Amy would be served freshly baked BMOJAL (refer to above) with her coffee while still languishing in bed, as she is wont to do. The funny thing about being married/living with someone is you realise not just the habits of the other person, but the random contrasts between the two of you, for example I generally require (want?) less sleep than Amy does. I often go to bed after her and get up before here. All good though, she gets muffins in bed. Oh yes, of course with baking comes my Chocolate Chip Cookies of Amazing Wondrousness (also ©). Those work more for exam stress alleviation than the muffins do though, and one friend of mine once mentioned that they tasted, in her mind, as the cookies in Stranger Than Fiction (the film) would taste, so they do act as something of a panacea for the malady of exams.

Some time after my exams (possibly next quarter) Amy and I are planning to go up to Reggio-Emilia, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. One of my classmates lives there with his girlfriend and they have basically offered free accommodation (most likely couches) as well as guided tours around the area. Supposedly there are some fantastic hot springs close by which we might be able to take advantage of one evening, though we've been told that there are a number of guards vigilantly patrolling the area searching for gefuffling (definitely not Italian, more like 'Rather imaginative old lady in Cape Town with dodgy hairnet' which is a language, just not as well known) couples. Not only that but we have been told that the BEST PIZZERIA IN THE WORLD is in Reggio. I have yet to be convinced, but with Guy (the friend who lives there) it seems to be quite a spiritual thing, almost transcendental really, so I imagine the pizza is good. Or at least I hope so for when Amy and I go there. Emilia-Romagna is also the home of several famous Italian towns: Ferrara (where the Ferrari comes from), Modena (Balsamic Vinegar anyone?), Parma (Yay! Parma Ham!) and several others. They are all fairly accessible from via train or bus and Amy and I are hoping to do a couple of things over the few days that we are there. If we have time we are also hoping to make it up to Milan, as there is an art show on there with some work by Churchill Madikida, a South African artist. We saw some of his work here at a show called .ZA Giovene Arte di Sudafrica (Young Art From South Africa). Seems like quite cool stuff. All of this depends on timing of course. Hmm...

Other than that, my exams finish and then after our few days away I immediately go back to Uni for classes. Literally we finish exams on the 7th and classes start again on the 12th. Ruthless I tell you, RUTHLESS! Although, we do get a statutory ten day vacation on account of Easter after a few weeks of term. Roman Catholic countries and Easter. You know it. We might try to organise another little jaunt during that time depending on what, how and how much. Uffizi anyone? A little day trip to San Gimignano?

In April too things look to be heating up. Amy is trying to plan to go to Frankfurt to a workshop at the Städel Museum (I think). Two particularly prominent feminist art historians, Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin, are involved. To put this in context Griselda Pollock is the author of one of the core texts for Amy's Masters, so if we can organise her going to Frankfurt it would be fantastic. Amy is also looking up possibilities in terms of meeting some of her friends from Honours in Art History, one of whom is currently in London and another of whom is staying in Eindhoven. Holding thumbs.

Also in April, I am off to Barcelona to attend a a conference on a project assessing the `Social and Mental Dynamics of Cooperation' with funding from the European Science Foundation. Its basically geared towards interdisciplinary research on pro-social and anti-social behaviour with input from economists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, evolutionary biologists, sociologists, etc. The research team is headed by Herbert Gintis, very cool Economist who has done a lot of research into evolutionary game theory and various other stuff. Sam Bowles (one of my Profs here) is also a leading principal investigator. Anyway, the basic idea is to consider human society as what is called a `Complex Adaptive System', to look at group and individual evolutionary pressures affecting behaviour, beliefs and preference formation. to assess gene-culture coevolution and other such things. Basically I am hoping that someone there will say, “Ah yes, YOU fine sir, you look like you could do with a PhD topic, here's a topic and some money to research it! Go forth and research!” One can fantasise. *SIGH* Nevertheless, the opportunity to go (and have things paid for) is fantastic. I am looking forward to it like no one's business. If you're interested I can tell you more personally at another point in time. But, so you know, this is basically the kind of work that I want to do, the raison d'être of my PhD if you will. Other than Bowles & Gintis, other cool people such as Ruth Mace (UCL), Arcadi Navarro (U Pompeu Fabbra), Dan Zahavi (U Copenhagen) and Ernst Fehr (U Zurich) are involved.

So I acknowledge that I haven't said too much about what has actually been happening, but nevertheless take it as granted that we are having a blast. Our home is a great little place, and it was made all the nicer by a brief visit by Gail from London (we're hoping one or two other friends might visit when the time is right). Gail and Amy also did a little day trip to Firenze. Amy and I are getting to know Florence better having been there a few times now, and can find everything from the food market, to random sports shops, to the 1€ for EVERYTHING shop (better quality than you'd imagine I assure you).

Another recent development has been our new computer. My laptop seems to have suffered a painful, grinding death. I have been told by the computer technician at the university here that, as it is still under its warranty, I can phone Hewlett-Packard, who will then send a technician to our home, pick it up, and then send it back when it's fixed. Supposedly. I have yet to make the call, my friend Vincenzo said he'd help as these Numero Verde (toll free number) people often assume you have at least 27 ¾ years of Italian under your belt, which I obviously don't. Anyway, we had Ubuntu installed on the new computer and we are loving it. It is incredibly stable and we have been having fun getting to know the system. I am also loving KILE (I write most of my documents for university in LaTex a science programming thingy, KILE, for Linux is the best program in which to do it, ever, better than ANYTHING I had on Windows). Also, we downloaded a TON of fonts for Amy in OpenOffice and she is having fun playing with those. So all round it's fun-fun-fun. I'm also learning all kinds of things as I start teaching myself to program using various internet sites. I really know next-to-nothing. I have started a couple of Python (a programming language) tutorials and am hoping to learn some things there.

Hmm... Other than the above, I have been reading various books and articles. Specifically I read Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth, a fun if somewhat epic read. I am also loving reading (when I can, and currently about 2/3 of the way through) Decisions, Uncertainty and the Brain: The New Science of Neuroeconomics by Paul Glimcher of NYU. It was a Christmas gift from Annette and Gordon and I have really enjoyed it, it feeds in well to what we'll be doing at the conference in Barcelona and hopefully I will have finished it by then and will be reading my next Economics (non-prescribed) text, either Behavioural Economics and is Applications by Peter Diamond and Hannu Vartainen or Advances in Behavioural Economics, Camerer, Loewenstein and Rabin (eds). I am currently reading another book I was given for Christmas – The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy. I loved The Road and No Country for Old Men (the title of which really doesn't translate well into Italian, I saw it in Feltrinelli bookshop the other day). I am also thoroughly enjoying All The Pretty Horses (The first part of the trilogy), but what makes it even more interesting is that you can see how his style and his themes evolved and changed from these books through to No Country and The Road. Very cool.

Anyway, enough work avoidance. Sending you all lots of love from Tuscany. I am going to try to pay more attention to my blog in the future. It has been some time. I'll put up everything from a photo or two, to other random things. You'll just have to see.

Ciao and love,

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A change in look & some food

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, March 05, 2008 | Category: | 0 comments

Ok, so it has been some time. I promise to get back on the wagon and add more write-ups to this blog. I have been very lax of late, so I apologise. I finish exams tomorrow, and yes I am avoiding work right now. I thought I would change the look of my blog too, to go with the whole New Life thing. Who knows?

Anyway, instead of my usual political rants I thought I would entertain you all with some recipes. the first recipe is for some banana muffins. I love banana muffins and particularly enjoy making up a mixture, then baking them in the morning when I get up. Studying a bit while they bake, then having them with some coffee. Superb.

The second is a soup that I have taken to making, I only tried it out very recently and is an adaptation of some recipes that I've seen. I generally take recipes either from books or the net and then change and alter them how I see fit. Hope you enjoy them!

Banana Muffins of Joy and Loveliness

4 Large Bananas (Mashed)

¾ Cup Sugar

2 Eggs, lightly beaten

125g Butter softened

1 tsp Baking Powder

½ tsp Salt

1 ½ Cups Flour

1 tsp Vanilla Essence

100g Chopped Walnuts

Cream together the butter, sugar and eggs.

Sift the dry ingredients and and combine with the butter mixture.

Add the bananas and the vanilla essence.

Stir in the nuts.

Bake for about 25 minutes or so. I'm quite intuitive about this. I also like to bake them in the middle rack of the oven, then move them up when they're close to being down in order to get a crispy top. YUM!

Makes about a dozen.

Fantastic Rosemary and Bean Soup

750 ml Stock (whichever type you prefer, I use chicken)

400g Tin Tomatoes

400g Tin of Chickpeas (drained and rinsed)

400g Tin other beans (I have used Cannellini)

2 Garlic Cloves (Crushed)

8 Spring Onions

2 Tbl Sp chopped rosemary

2 Tbl Sp Olive Oil

Optional addition:

250g Pancetta (chopped bacon)

Warm the oil and add the chopped spring onions, garlic and rosemary. Cook until the onions are soft. Add the tomatoes, ensuring that they are crushed up. Cook for five minutes, allowing to boil. Do not cover! Add the stock, I generally use chicken stock as we regularly make roast chicken and I almost always use it to make stock. Having added the stock, add the beans and allow the soup to warm through simmering it for another five minutes. If you so choose, you can add the bacon close to the end, first frying it in its own fat, draining of the fat and then adding it to the soup. This reminds me of a favourite soup I used to purchase at Woolies. Fantastic for cold wintry days!