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.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Long-awaited update

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

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,

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