Departures Arrivals: Vittorio and Lasse Came for a Conference on Decision-making, and Opted to Sleep on a Couch

Amir and Ori went to Russia to lecture about DNA and came back with stress fractures.

Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam
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Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam

Vittorio Locati, 26, and Lasse Jessen, 27; departing for Copenhagen

Hi, can I ask what you did in Israel?

Lasse: We were at a big conference in Jerusalem, a kind of two-week academic summer school.

Vittorio: It could have gone on longer, as far as I’m concerned.

Lasse: There were 120-150 people there from all over the world. It was organized by the Hebrew University. It was nice.

Who addressed the conference?

Vittorio: A lot of Israelis; a lot of economists, including Nobel laureates: Daniel Kahneman and Eric Maskin. The subject was decision making.

Who was the most interesting speaker?

Lasse: For me, it was Ariel Rubinstein. He thinks a little differently. In contrast to most people and most economists – who see economics as a type of science – he considers it a type of art.

Vittorio: I liked Itzhak Gilboa. He proposed a new model of analogy for decision making. You first examine what happened in the past, and whether the case you are dealing with is similar to something else.

I don’t understand any of this.

For example, if the United States can’t make up its mind whether to intervene in Syria, it can compare the situation to past cases. In some situations, intervention of that kind was a waste of time and money, not to say a disaster, and in others it was beneficial. You can check to see which of the past cases the present situation resembles and decide according to that.

Can check, or should?

Economics used to be about the way people should decide, in a normative way. But nowadays they say, “Let’s see how people decide.” In other words, the field deals with the descriptive dimension.

What is your research about?

I am still working on it. I went through a big change from my previous work, as a mathematician, in which I focused on game theory.

Lasse: I am doing experiments on the impact of risk and time on the decision-making process. For example: which would you prefer − a Lotto ticket that gives you a small chance to win a big amount, or one that gives you a big chance to win a small amount? We try to understand how much risk people are willing to take.

What does that have to do with time?

We also ask people whether they would prefer to receive 1,000 euros now or 1,200 euros in another year.

What do they prefer?

It’s crazy, but by and large they would prefer to get the money now. We are examining how much money has to be offered for people to prefer to receive it in the future. The point at which the switch is made involves a very large discrepancy in the amount.

Very Buddhist: people living the moment.

This is actually a study that tries to understand how much people value the present in relation to the future. There is an American scholar from Harvard, Prof. David Laibson, who thinks what happens now is very important. For example, people say, “Next week I will go to the gym.” Or, “Next week I will start a diet,” Or, “Next week I will quit smoking.” They make plans, but when next week comes they don’t do anything.

Tell me about it.

It is important for me to understand how people think, react and make decisions, because in the final analysis I would like to create an incentive. For example, to help people stop smoking now. I am not after money. I want to improve people’s lives. After all, it’s not rational to smoke. But maybe for you it is rational? Maybe there are people with different priorities? Maybe those who don’t smoke value the future more?

For sure.

Smoking provides only a short-term reward. Maybe you are a gambling type. Maybe you are afraid of the future?

Now I am afraid of economists.

Vittorio: It’s not that we are so organized when it comes to the future. You know, I was supposed to find us a hostel for a weekend in Tel Aviv and I forgot. I only remembered the day before, and everything was full.

Lasse: Italians! They talk a lot and do nothing. We’d brought sleeping bags and everything. It was a bit scary, because we thought we would have to sleep on the beach on the weekend of Gay Pride Week.

Where did you sleep in the end?

Vittorio: We went into a couchsurfing site and at the last minute a nice girl from Jaffa invited us to her place. She took us to a party with her friends. It was a very good experience. It looks as though after the army Israelis know how to have a good time. I was just a bit sad that they are my age and traveling all over the world, and I am studying so hard.

At least you got paid to travel.

Yes, it’s a good way to see the world; it’s both work and a vacation. We studied, we traveled, we drank and we swam in a pool. But tomorrow we have a conference in Copenhagen and I have to speak. I had an urge to leave the passports in the hotel and head for Sinai.

Amir Aharoni, 44, and Ori Dagan-Aharoni, 36, from Beit Kama; arriving from St. Petersburg

Hi, can I ask where you arrived from?

Ori: We spent five days in St. Petersburg. It was my first time in Russia.

What was the reason for the trip?

Amir attended a scientific conference.

What was the topic?

Amir: Basic mechanisms of DNA replication, genomic stability and cancer.

Can you explain that in a way I can understand?

Amir: I can try. The conference discussed what happens to mutations in cancerous cells; how mistakes in DNA come about; whether it’s good to store such genetic information; and the effect that has on the survivability of a cancerous tumor.

What is the effect?

At first there are many mutations in cancerous tumors, and then, when the tumor takes root, they are suppressed.

Why?

Apparently when the tumor adapts itself to its surroundings, it no longer requires so many mutations. The first traits of cancerous cells are multiple DNA errors. They allow the tumors to grow − and, for example, to cope with chemical agents which are supposed to destroy them. But it turns out that mutations are subsequently created which suppress the formation of new mutations ... it is all a matter of survivability.

Sounds interesting.

It was fascinating. In general, conferences are great fun.

A vacation.

Not really. You have to lecture, there is a very rigid schedule, and at some point you reach the saturation point in terms of absorbing information.

But don’t they take you sightseeing and show you a good time?

Ori: We signed up for all kinds of activities. We went to the big museum there, the Hermitage, and we went sightseeing. We walked our feet off. Seriously, we have stress fractures. We have three children, aged 10, 6 and 3.5. This was our second vacation without them. The first time, we went to Berlin.

Amir: It was a little strange in Berlin at first. It’s a different feeling. I am 44 years old and suddenly I didn’t know how to get around without a child’s hand to hold.

Ori: We missed the children and the dog very much, but it really was a lot more fun, because he didn’t have a conference [that time] and had a lot more free time.

What did you do while he was talking about mutations?

Part of the time I went sightseeing with a woman whose husband also took part in the conference. There are always wives.

Are there also husbands?

Amir: The vast majority of the conference participants were men. Ten percent were women.

Are there special activities for the spouses?

Ori: No, unless you count the Jacuzzi in the hotel, which really was nice. It was my first time in a Jacuzzi. I am not one of your spoiled types.

Spoiling oneself is important for survivability.

I tried. On the first day we went to the ballet and saw “Swan Lake.” But unfortunately, we sat in the third balcony, on the ceiling. After that we enjoyed ourselves more.

With what?

From the “white nights”: There is no night now in St. Petersburg. It’s a bit dark for about two hours a day. The sun sets officially between 4 P.M. and midnight, but there is no real darkness. The sky is blue all the time.

Amir: It’s confusing. We went out to eat at 9:30 P.M. and came back at 1 A.M., because there was total daylight. We started to see the colors of the sunset.

Ori: It really is very romantic, but it never ends.

Amir: It’s a beautiful city. Its beauty is very much like Paris, only not as well maintained. But the bridges were really special.

Explain again in a way that I can understand.

A large forked river runs through the middle of the city − the Neva, which flows to the Baltic Sea. The city is its estuary. At around 1 A.M., four or five big bridges open to an angle of 90 degrees. A moment before, cars are still crossing them, and then they suddenly open up so large commercial ships can pass. Huge lines of ships go through for two or three hours. It’s a very impressive sight. We stayed awake in their honor.

Vittorio Locati and Lasse Jessen.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amir Aharoni and Ori Dagan-Aharoni.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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