Saturday, October 6, 2018

An Obsession with Models

I have two loves: My family. And data. They occupy in my mind and heart spaces of an overlapping nature, so I cant say the two are totally separable. My microeconomics professor once related a story to me about driving down a lonely Ohio road on a family trip to someplace more interesting (read: not in Ohio) one weekend, babies and kids in tow in the back seat, with a distant yet pensive look on his face that led his wife to ask him, "What are you thinking about, honey?"

With a slight (mistakably creepy) grin, he said: "Models."

Given that this poor gal probably knew what she was getting into when she married an economist, this comment was not followed up by a crisp and sudden slap in the face, but rather an, "Oh, Chuck... you and your models. Don't your ever stop?"

Welcome to the life of a data-nerd/economist.

Any of us 'data nerds' will understand that Chuck was not talking about the underfed version of 'model' clad in a bikini walking down a well lit runway somewhere in Los Angeles, California, but rather the kind that you scribble out on a halfway dirty napkin that seeks to identify the rational choice of an individual to either walk or stand still up an moving escalator given the equilibrium point of the marginal utility of both reaching the top of this escalator in a timely way and the marginal dis-utility of expected energy expenditure from doing so. Simple scenario right? But says Chuck to any fellow microeconomist: this is a your classic Lagrangian. All you need is a proper model. OK.. Tyra - let's go.

Erp. Wrong model.

OK, I barely passed Chuck's class and the exams in which I was expected model out such scenarios in detail I typically had to leave 50% blank while I watched the minute hands of the clock tick away and my hopes at graduating get dimmer and dimmer. So... I will not claim that I mastered the technique of modeling out such scenarios in a Harvard (which Chuck obviously was) economist style way.

[SIDEBAR] Let me just say: thank God Chuck graded these exams on a curve. And also, screw you John Hollingsworth for ruining that curve for me... I mean really? Undergraduate guy opts to take grad school class... proceeds to make all us grad school kids look like fumbling idiots and ruin our curve? Go back to Geniusland John Hollingsworth. OK, John. Truth is I was just jealous. And I still am. [END SIDEBAR]

But back to models. Ever since then it has not been lost on me that there is a basis to similarly model out every decision in all of our lives. That the human brain is a complex computer that is absorbing information and optimizing marginal costs and benefits of decisions like this thousands of times every day. Ultimately, we do not spend time thinking about the decision itself or any of this 'optimizing,' as we similarly do not think about the fascinating complexity of an internal combustion engine every time we drive; we just know that when we press the gas, the car goes - but that does not mean that all that complexity and mathematics involved is not at work.

Why does it matter to us? It all intertwines. And it adds a framework to think about everyday things in a way you may never have imagined. For example (and to plug another post of mine) this data viz is all about the optimization involved in the decision of a potential travel destination (#firstworldproblems). I have actually used this as a framework for making this decision. I bought my Subaru Legacy 2.5i based on a weighted average of price, gas mileage, warranty, drivetrain type and several other factors which I framed out in an excel model. Many people may just look at a few cars and make a decision based on their gut... but if I can get that bad boy into an excel spreadsheet and model it out... you better believe I'm going to do it.

Welcome to the life of a data nerd.

I'm not saying there is never a situation where one may stray from this; if memory serves me correct, Jenn and I bought plane tickets to Spain shortly after splitting a pitcher of Sangria and several tapas at our favorite Spanish restaurant in Las Vegas... I am not sure the Lagrangian we were optimizing there... but that turned out to be an incredible trip and I am not sure any model other than Rioja and fabulously crafted croquettas would have led us to this point of optimization, but optimize we did.

Conclusion:

Our world and our lives are surrounded by all these situations/decisions and we make them every day whether we know it or not. All of us are constantly optimizing our utility. What's your Lagrangian?

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