New research page

This is my personal blog, updated very intermittently, and I haven’t decided what to do with it in the future.

In the interim I’m maintaining a site at with my profile, and I might even blog about more technical stuff over there, we’ll see.

Cheese: a tragic tale (with a happy ending)

Few foods inspire as much passion as our lord and saviour cheese. I am, like all mentally sound individuals, passionate about cheese. My Italian background meant I was exposed early to the holy trinity of Parmigiano-Reggiano, mozzarella and ricotta, with my earliest memories being of sitting in my mother’s lap, her alternating between feeding me baby food and cubes of mozzarella [*]. A little later comes eating beef ravioli smothered in parmesan. All relationships deepen with time, and so my relationship with cheese, extending beyond the products of the Italian peninsula into French, Greek, and other variants. Naturally, I am fond of the other forms of dairy such as milk and yoghurt, but cheese is so obviously superior that it’s hardly worth mentioning them (but I did).

So I have always felt my love for cheese to be justified by my heritage and its obvious merits. But recent research has added a tragic twist to this culinary romance story. I am one of the lucky minority (35%) of homo sapiens that has the lactase persistence phenotype, that is, I am not lactose intolerant, that is, I can eat dairy with relative impunity. This means I am similar to most others of European descent, who have this genetic trait at much higher rates than other populations. As a child, everyone starts off being able to digest lactose because our bodies helpfully produce lactase, an enzyme that allows us to digest the lactose in breast milk. Yet, tragically, the majority of humans start to lose this ability going into adulthood.

This alone is almost unspeakably sad and I am inclined to start a charitable foundation to help ease their suffering. But there is more tragedy left in this story. Since the majority of people don’t have this trait, why am I so lucky? Why do Europeans have this trait? Natural selection drives most genetic change, so the answer is that it must have been selected for in Europe relatively recently, after homo sapiens emerged as a species and spread around the globe. Estimates suggest it developed somewhere between 2,000 and 20,000 years ago, which is just about the evolutionary equivalent of a bee’s whisker. Change that rapid requires tremendous selective pressure, which is a really nice evolutionary euphemism for saying tons of people must have died without passing on their genes. And this must have happened in placid old Europe.

The real puzzle is this: whilst it might make them feel ill, most lactose intolerant adults do not become violently sick and die when they drink milk or eat cheese. Yet children, by and large, digest lactose just fine, so it must have been adults that died. With such a short timespan for the change, it’s not enough that adult lactose digestion might confer some small advantage on its recipients: stronger forces are required. The current and dominant theory for what happened is fascinating and tragic.

You see, compared to more southerly climes, Europe is cool enough that milk can keep for some time during most months, meaning it’s a more viable food source without being processed into yoghurt. Still, initially most adults could not drink it without feeling ill, so most would avoid it or drink smaller quantities of it before processing it. In regular times when crops are yielding well, this works just fine. Now, contrary to our current view of Europe as the land of plenty, historically famine was pretty common. During a famine, adults become malnourished and desperate. Desperate enough that the milk that usually gives a person a little tummy ache starts to look awfully appealing compared to, well, starving (the cows are mostly fine because they can eat things that human’s can’t, like grass). That lactose intolerant person drinks fresh milk, and, in their weakened state they have a higher chance of falling ill enough to get diarrhoea, which weakens them further—and then they die.

If the famine is severe and prolonged enough, this would considerably thin out the lactose intolerant population, leaving a higher proportion able to digest lactose. If this happens repeatedly over a few centuries, we end up with the current high proportion of lactose tolerant individuals in Europe. This means, unfortunately, that a lot of people died to create the cheese-loving culture that is my heritage.

So that’s the current story. Famine drove our non-ancestors and ancestors alike to drink milk to survive, and only those who were able to survived, and they became our ancestors. This adds even more gravitas to the already near-spiritual act of cheese-eating. So if you are of European descent like me, next time you sit down in front of a dish smothered in parmesan, or put some cheddar on your sandwich, or eat a cheesy pizza, or even just have a nice glass of milk, remember all the survivors that came before you to bring you that ability. And maybe, ironically, eat a little extra cheese in honour of those that couldn’t hack it.

[*] The events of my childhood have been slightly dramatised for this post

Poem: The God Abandons Antony by C. P. Cavafy

This is a translation of the poem ‘The God Abandons Antony’ by the Greek poet C. P Cavafy:

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.


Evidently, Jacqueline Onassis was very fond of Cavafy’s work, and requested another of his poems, Ithaca, be read at her funeral.

Bad behaviour has economic value?

The abstract of a paper by Papageorge, Ronda and Zheng, ‘The Economic Value of Breaking Bad Misbehavior, Schooling and the Labor Market’:

Prevailing research argues that childhood misbehavior in the classroom is bad for schooling and, presumably, bad overall. In contrast, we argue that childhood misbehavior reflects underlying traits that are potentially valuable in the labor market. We follow work from psychology and treat measured classroom misbehavior as reflecting two underlying non-cognitive traits. Next, we estimate a model of life-cycle decisions, allowing the impact of each of the two traits to vary by economic outcome. We show the first evidence that one of the traits capturing childhood misbehavior, discussed in psychological literature as the externalizing trait (and linked, for example, to aggression), does indeed reduce educational attainment, but also increases earnings. This finding highlights a broader point: non-cognition is not well summarized as a single underlying trait that is either good or bad per se. Using the estimated model, we assess competing pedagogical policies. For males, we find that policies aimed at eliminating the externalizing trait increase schooling attainment, but also reduce earnings. In comparison, policies that decrease the schooling penalty of the externalizing trait increase both schooling and earnings.

The paper suggests that, at least in labour market terms, we may be optimising schooling badly. Certain types of childhood misbehaviour actually translate to higher earnings later in life.

But the traits are related to aggression, so it’s unclear (to me) whether the higher earnings correspond to an individual delivering truly greater economic value, or are just due to them having increased bargaining capacity.

Friedrich Hayek’s speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize

[…] I must confess that if I had been consulted whether to establish a Nobel Prize in economics, I should have decidedly advised against it.

One reason was that I feared that such a prize, as I believe is true of the activities of some of the great scientific foundations, would tend to accentuate the swings of scientific fashion.

This apprehension the selection committee has brilliantly refuted by awarding the prize to one whose views are as unfashionable as mine are.

I do not yet feel equally reassured concerning my second cause of apprehension.

It is that the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess.

This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence.

But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.



Quotes from books I’ve been reading (1-Jun-14)

Mined from my Kindle highlights. These are in reverse order, mostly recently read (reading) to least.

The Supermodel and the Brillo Box

By Don Thompson. (Amazon link)

I’ve only just started this book, but it’s excellent.

A quote of a quote:

On first visiting the Art Institute of Chicago and seeing Georgia O’Keefe’s giant Sky Above Clouds IV painting, the seven-year-old stared for a long time, turned to her mother and said, “Who drew it? I need to talk to her.” —Quintana Roo, daughter of novelist Joan Didion

On the sale of a stuffed bald eagle from a deceased collector’s estate

On the estate tax return, Sonnabend’s children, Nina Sundell and Antonio Homem, listed the market value of Canyon as zero. Their argument, and that of an appraiser they retained, was that Canyon had no value because it was a federal crime to deal in such an object. If there was no possible market for the work, all that could be done was to donate it to a museum. In 2012 they presented it to MoMA. Wrong about the market value, responded the Internal Revenue Service; Canyon had a high value “on the illicit market.” The IRS valued Canyon at $65 million, and levied $29.2 million in estate tax and another $11.7 million in penalties on the estate for their undervaluation. Ralph Lerner, the art lawyer representing the estate, said that there was not even a black market for such a work, but the IRS disagreed. “For example, a recluse billionaire in China might want to buy it and hide it.”

Wuthering Heights

By Emily Brontë. (Amazon link)

On Joseph, the moralising servant of Wuthering Heights:

He was, and is yet most likely, the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbours.

Advice from Nelly, the narrator:

‘Proud people breed sad sorrows for themselves.’

Metamorphosis and Other Stories

By Franz Kafka. (Amazon link)

I read Metamorphosis some time ago but hadn’t read many of the other short stories. This is actually the entirety of ‘The Next Village':

My grandfather used to say: ‘Life is astonishingly short. When I look back now it is all so condensed in my memory that I can hardly understand, for example, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village, without his being afraid – quite apart from unfortunate accidents – that the whole span of a normal happy life is far from being adequate for such a ride.’

Destination Void

By Frank Herbert (Amazon link)

This is one of Herbert’s lesser known series, the Pandora Sequence. Like Dune, I think the first book is the best.

The characters are stuck on a malfunctioning ship, their only chance to survive is to create an artificial consciousness within the ship’s computer. This is an insight by the protagonist into the definition of consciousness:

For the first time, Bickel turned his thoughts onto the concept of consciousness as a shield—a way of protecting its possessor from the shocks of the unknown. It was an “I can do anything!” answer hurled at a universe that threatened you with everything.

The Bell Jar

By Sylvia Plath. (Amazon link)

For some reason I’d never heard of this book before, which evidently is the literary equivalent of living under a rock (which is about right for me).

On misogynists:

I began to see why woman-haters could make such fools of women. Woman-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power. They descended, and then they disappeared. You could never catch one.

That moment:

For the first time in my life, sitting there in the sound-proof heart of the UN building between Constantin who could play tennis as well as simultaneously interpret and the Russian girl who knew so many idioms, I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.

The Logic of Scientific Discovery

By Karl Popper. (Amazon link)

On philosophers:

Some philosophers have made a virtue of talking to themselves; perhaps because they felt that there was nobody worth talking to. I fear the practice of philosophising on this somewhat exalted plane may be a symptom of the decline of rational discussion.

No doubt God talks mainly to Himself because He has no one worth talking to. But a philosopher should know that he is no more godlike than any other man.

On scientific theories:

Theories are nets cast to catch what we call ‘the world': to rationalize, to explain, and to master it. We endeavour to make the mesh ever finer and finer.

More on the relationship between theory and experiment:

And although I believe that in the history of science it is always the theory and not the experiment, always the idea and not the observation, which opens up the way to new knowledge, I also believe that it is always the experiment which saves us from following a track that leads nowhere: which helps us out of the rut, and which challenges us to find a new way.


The only thing I want to say publically about the election

Posted this to my Facebook friends, but thought I ought to cross-post to this blog:

I’ve been trying to keep the election stuff in my Facebook feed to a minimum, but would like to share a quick thought. Most of the commentary I see around rests on discussions of ‘what the election means for me’. And that’s fair enough. But for myself I know that, on balance, the election won’t have a great effect on my welfare. I lack major illnesses, disabilities, have good employment prospects and a good outlook for the future. The NBN is the only policy that could have much effect on me but I’m trying to keep that bias under check.

There are, however, many people—with a lot less political influence than me and most of my friends—for whom this is not true. There are many in Australia, and many abroad, and they lack access to basic necessities, lack a sense of security in life, and feel disenfranchised with no real representation in the political arena.

I would like to see policies that support these vulnerable people. The NDIS was such a policy and I’m so glad that both parties supported it in the end.

So to those friends who don’t belong in that category, and, I suppose, to those who do, I encourage you: if you are asked what this election means to you, talk about those to whom it probably means a lot more.

Thanks for reading :)