Open Thread

i. A while back I promised an update on the clinical trial I’ve been enrolled in, but I forgot about that stuff. Anyway I have learned that I was one of the patients who got the active drug, and they’d like me to continue taking the drug for another two years. I’ve decided to stay in the trial (technically I’m enrolling in a new trial, but…) and keep taking the drug.

ii. Given that the World Chess Championship has just started, this paper about chess ratings seems timely. Here’s incidentally the World Chess Championship main site. It’s started out with two draws, the last of them lasting only one hour and fifteen minutes or so – really disappointing but perhaps not that surprising; most championship match games tend in my opinion to be rather boring.

iii. This weekend I went to a Mensa ‘Game Day’ meetup – basically we got together and played various games (mostly board-games in my case, but no chess..) the entire day. This is one of the few ways I’m currently trying to step outside my comfort zone. It was sort of an okay experience and I’m glad I gave it a shot. But I did get bored towards the end and I felt very drained afterwards. I learned that this kind of thing is an inefficient way to get to know people. I was reminded that when you feel socially isolated and lonely you tend to think of social interaction with other people as much nicer than it actually often is in real life.


Sorry for the infrequent updates. What have you been up to? Read something interesting? Watched a good movie?


November 12, 2013 - Posted by | Astronomy, Chess, Open Thread, Papers, Personal


  1. Re. building vocabulary: I’ve bought a Kindle Paperwhite, which instantly gives you the entry from Oxford Dictionary of English (or Wikipedia) on any word you highlight in the book you’re reading. It also saves all previously highlighted words in a “vocabulary builder” where you can review them as primitive flashcards (basically three options: see definition, repeat or mark as mastered). Perhaps it would be as – or more – effective than

    Re. socializing via board games: I would have thought that econ-students applied their knowledge in everyday situations? E.g. an intuitive grasp of the marginal utility of an extra unit of beingSocial at a given time 🙂

    Comment by Stefan | November 13, 2013 | Reply

    • i. Thanks for the comment.

      ii. “I’ve bought” […] “Perhaps it would be as – or more – effective than” Hmm, perhaps as effective – but not as cheap… 🙂

      On a more serious note, that’s a pretty awesome feature and it sounds like a very neat tool – thanks for letting me know about it. I actually think is a very effective tool – I’ve already ‘mastered’ close to 500 words at this point – but that doesn’t mean I won’t consider using other methods at well, if they’re as easy to apply as would be getting one of those things.

      iii. “I would have thought that econ-students applied their knowledge in everyday situations? E.g. an intuitive grasp of the marginal utility of an extra unit of beingSocial at a given time”

      It’s sometimes hard to assess the ‘true’ marginal costs and benefits associated with a given activity due to things like incomplete information/uncertainty and time inconsistent preferences, among other things. There’ll often be a positive option-value associated with staying even if you don’t enjoy this particular moment of the social exchange taking place; ‘I may be bored now but the next game will be very fun’. ‘I’ll probably regret having left early when I get home if I leave now.’ I actually believe that I tend to think more about the utility costs and -benefits associated with social interactions with others than do other people and I also tell myself that I let such considerations inform my decision-making to a greater extent, precisely because I engage in such activities quite rarely. In the field of consumer decision making an important observation is that not all purchases are the same; some (infrequent, expensive) purchases (a new TV, a new computer) are a lot more cognitively demanding than are others (frequent, inexpensive) purchases (toilet paper), and people tend to use a lot more energy and mental resources figuring out which TV to buy than they do figuring out which brand of milk to buy. Drawing an analogy here, social decisions tend to be more costly and complex decision problems for me than for other people, and so I’ll probably tend to spend more time and effort on the analytical part whereas others just rely on a great extent on heuristics. I know that I may be mistaken, but it’s my impression anyway. Another way to conceptualize this is to think in terms of a hurdle model where the agent’s probability of clearing the hurdle (engaging in social interaction) is related to the (analytical) effort expended on the specific social choice decision to be made – my hurdle is higher, so…

      Complicating matters in terms of evaluating costs and benefits of social interaction is also the fact that something I’ve realized along the line is that sometimes discomfort associated with a given type of social interaction is best perceived of as a necessary cost which can be justified only when applying a general equilibrium framework; I may not enjoy engaging in this particular social stuff for another hour right now (the partial derivative is negative, at least in part of the relevant domain), but if I were to not do this social stuff now I’d be likely to feel a lot worse five days from now than I otherwise would (…the total derivative is positive). Another matter is that I know from experience that extreme isolation can make you want to kill yourself, so I sometimes find myself questioning my emotional responses to social stimuli – they don’t always get to have the final word when I’m evaluating.

      I’m not sure I’d consider it to be completely fair to say that I do not have ‘intuitive grasp of […] marginal utility of an extra unit of beingSocial at a given time’. As I’ve pointed out before, social stuff is complicated. Maybe I could become better at applying the stuff, but I do think about such things (…as well… – As an analytical philosopher told me roughly a week ago, “You think too much”).

      iv. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I left a reply to your query in the last open thread here. As I pointed out in my reply, if you could be a bit more specific about your preferences the question would be easier for me to answer…

      Comment by US | November 13, 2013 | Reply

      • Thanks for the book recommendation reply. I’ve started reading the The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and will keep the an eye out for The Human Past. I didn’t answer because the question was what 1 book *you* enjoyed most, which is also the question I suspect you answered.

        Re. marginal utility: If you had to turn the concept (which you have a much better grasp of than I) into a heuristic which could be executed in <5 seconds IRL, how would do that?

        Comment by Stefan | November 13, 2013

      • One aspect not mentioned above is rather important regarding potential heuristics: If I don’t like the social interaction at time t, there may be positive derived effects from staying at time t+1, but if you look at it from a longer term perspective if I habituate myself to engaging in unpleasant social interaction I may become less likely to engage in social interactions later, which may imply that utility may go down at times t+2 and later on because of increased social isolation. Without having this secondary effect in mind, you risk justifying staying even in cases where it’s clearly not optimal to do so.

        One heuristic I’ve tried to apply in social interactions lately is this: If I find myself actively thinking about whether it would make sense to stay or not while engaged in a social activity (or: ‘Am I enjoying myself?’), I’ll take that as an indication that I ought to try to 1. improve the situation and, 2. if that fails, leave. If I’m enjoying myself I’m mostly not asking myself specific questions of that particular nature (if I am meta-aware of the fact that I’m enjoying myself, things are going very well) nor am I likely to if I (implicitly) expect to enjoy myself in the near future, so some sort of action is warranted. If I’ve not engaged socially for a while the ‘am I bored?’-observation will carry less weight and it’ll not necessarily be decisive in terms of 2. (causing me to leave), but will rather depend on which plans I’d made beforehand. During Gameday I’d told myself beforehand that I should stay at least until dinner, and then I’d be free to leave if I preferred to do that. I realized I was bored around 7.30 PM or something like that, after dinner, and so I left shortly after I’d realized that, after having failed to improve the circumstances.

        In familiar social contexts, I’ll have decided before I engage in the social activity how long I should stay in order to get something positive out of the experience longterm. ‘Stay in the chess-club for a few minutes after you’ve finished your games, then leave unless you have a good reason not to. A good reason not to could be if there’s a friend there with whom I might play a few blitz games before leaving’. Unless things are going spectacularly badly, I just tend to stick to the (implicit) plans I’ve made beforehand.

        Comment by US | November 13, 2013

      • (This was implicit in my response above, but perhaps I should clarify a bit: I don’t think you can really turn ‘the concept of marginal utility’ into a (good? meaningful?) decision-heuristic. I’m again not sure if you know what you’re asking..

        You need other stuff as well. It takes a lot of work and assumptions to even construct a utility function – I’ve been doing some of that work this semester, and even ‘simple stuff’ may sometimes require some pretty advanced math. It’s the third or fourth course I’ve taken which has been dealing with these problems. Taking first order derivatives of presumably not-very-well-specified functions (and higher order derivatives as well, to ensure optimality (global or local optimality?)) and deriving optimality conditions.. is just not going to work in real life. Doing even that stuff already incidentally implies making a lot of assumptions which are at best questionable. Assuming a well-specified utility function even exists is a big step, and using marginal utility without a (differentiable) utility function is, well… The step from an established utility schedule to an actual (differentiable?) utility function takes some assumptions which are hardly always satisfied. Often even in cases where a differentiable utility function does exist a corner solution can not be rejected, certainly not out of hand. If your utility function includes several decision variables (plausible ones always do), even identifying the relevant (total) marginal utilities (/derivatives) will require university-level calculus as well as some time and effort.

        So we mostly just guess and we go by our guts, making use of heuristics which were probably a lot more helpful to the guy on the African savanna than they are to individuals alive today. You know this. As should also implicitly be clear from my response above, I believe that the most plausible way in which analytical tools and concepts like ‘marginal utility’ and ‘utility functions’ etc. may be used to help a person making better decisions is in my view through the identification of relevant decision-variables and their effects. I have the impression that people often don’t know their preferences as well as they’d probably like to do, and thinking about them using a systematic framework may make some of the relevant variables and tradeoffs more obvious and easier to include explicitly in the analysis when engaging in conscious decisionmaking. When formulating explicit decision-rules to be used as short-hand heuristics the variables and effects identified may prove useful (in a ‘trial-and-error’ sense, at least), but how precisely those decision-rules may end up looking will vary a lot from person to person as it’ll depend a lot upon the variables included and the tradeoffs idenfied (and omitted).)

        “I’ve started reading the The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and will keep the an eye out for The Human Past”

        I forgot to point this out in my first response, but I should mention that I was happy to learn this.. 🙂

        Comment by US | November 14, 2013

      • Ok, it sounds like it’s not feasible to try to implement the scientifc concept directly.

        @ “When formulating explicit decision-rules to be used as short-hand heuristics the variables and effects identified may prove useful (in a ‘trial-and-error’ sense, at least), but how precisely those decision-rules may end up looking will vary a lot from person to person as it’ll depend a lot upon the variables included and the tradeoffs idenfied (and omitted).)”

        Yes, but I think you got some pretty universal ones down in your first reply. Especially getting an idea of how much social interaction is needed to keep up one’s mood and resilience, which types of interaction are most meaningful and fulfilling, and developing an intuition for when to try improve or disengage.

        Comment by Stefan | November 14, 2013

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