Echoes 39. Muhammad Ali: Little Jimmy’s Friend. Thu Sep 24, 2015

Echoes 39. Muhammad Ali: Little Jimmy’s Friend. Thu Sep 24, 2015

Echoes 39. Muhammad Ali: Little Jimmy’s Friend
BY Asrar Chowdhury

Shout, The Daily Star, Thu Sep 24, 2015
http://www.thedailystar.net/shout/echoes/muhammad-ali-little-jimmys-friend-147676

Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. Coined by
Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. Coined by Drew Bundini Brown

For Muhammad Ali, 1974 was a big year. That year he fought an epic fight against George Foreman for the Heavyweight Champion title that was taken away from him in 1967. The fight was known as The Rumble in the Jungle. It was fought in Kinshasa, Zaire in today’s Congo. Ever since winning a Gold Medal in the Rome Olympics in 1960, Cassius Clay, as he was known then, transformed boxing into an art, “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.” Through time, Muhammad Ali became one of the most loved persons of the 20th century.

 

During the preparation for the Foreman fight, a father and his son, Jimmy, came to Ali’s training camp at Deer Lake. Jimmy was like millions of other kids. He wanted to meet the Champ.

 

It was a hot day in May. Little Jimmy was wearing a skull cap. He was dressed heavily. Ali got curious. “Why are you dressed like that, Jimmy?” He asked. Jimmy’s answer said it all. “I have leukemia. I take chemotherapy. I lost all my hair. I just came to tell you how happy you make me.”

 

Ali and his team were touched. Who wouldn’t be? Ali fights battles inside and outside the ring. Little Jimmy was fighting a battle for life. Ali’s manager Gene Kilroy took a photo of Jimmy and Ali. It was enlarged, framed and later sent to Jimmy’s dad.  Ali autographed it: “To my friend, Jimmy.”

 

Ali hugged Jimmy and whispered: “I’m going to beat George Foreman. You’re going to beat cancer.”

 

Two weeks later, Ali’s team received a phone call. Jimmy was in hospital. He wasn’t doing well. Would Ali come and meet Jimmy? Ali and his Team were at Jimmy’s bedside within three hours.

 

Cancer had the final say. Little Jimmy’s skin was as white as the bed sheets. The moment he saw Ali, his little blue eyes lit up. “Muhammad, I knew you’d come,” he said in excitement. Ali reminded him. “Jimmy, remember what I told you? I’m going to beat George Foreman. You’re going to beat cancer.”

 

Little Jimmy looked at Ali. He gave a knockout punch. Ali couldn’t answer back.
“No, Muhammad. I’m going to meet God. I’m going to tell Him, you’re my friend.”
The room became silent. Everybody was in tears. Ali hugged Little Jimmy and went back to train for the Foreman fight.

 

A week later, Jimmy lost the fight. The family invited Ali to Jimmy’s funeral. Ali couldn’t be present. Gene Kilroy went on behalf of Ali.

 

Little Jimmy was sleeping peacefully.  Beside him was his most prized possession: the framed autographed photo of him and the Champ.

No Muhammad. I'm going to meet God. I'm going to tell him you're my friend- Little Jimmy to the Champ, Muhammad Ali
No Muhammad. I’m going to meet God. I’m going to tell him you’re my friend- Little Jimmy to the Champ, Muhammad Ali

Ali kept his promise to Little Jimmy. He defeated George Foreman and became the World Champion again. Little Jimmy also kept his promise. He was now on his way to tell God that Muhammad Ali, the Champ, is his friend.

Dedication: For Annapurna, who wanted her dad to re-tell the story so she and her friends could read it.

Asrar Chowdhury teaches economic theory and game theory in the classroom. Outside he listens to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: asrar.chowdhury@facebook.com

Echoes 38. The Only Records You Want to Break. Thu Sep 10, 2015

Echoes 38. The Only Records You Want to Break. Thu Sep 10, 2015

Echoes 38. The Only Records You Want to Break
BY Asrar Chowdhury

Shout, The Daily Star, Thu Sep 10, 2015
http://www.thedailystar.net/shout/echoes/the-only-records-you-want-break-140446

In November 1951, Hugh Beaver, then CEO of Guinness Breweries went shooting birds with friends at County Wexford in Ireland. Beaver missed a shot at a Golden Plover. This lead to a debate: which is the fastest game bird in Europe, the Golden Plover or the Red Grouse? Unfortunately, the answer couldn’t be found in any reference book. Beaver thought questions like this arise in the minds of most people. At the heat of the moment he decided to commission somebody to write a book that compiles answers to this and similar questions.

Guinness employee Christopher Chataway referred two of his old friends from Oxford University: the twin brothers, Norris and Ross McWhirter. They were running a fact-finding company at Fleet Street in London. Beaver commissioned the McWhirter twins to compile a book that provided information on extreme facts (note the word ‘extreme’). The McWhirter twins worked day in and day out. On August 27, 1955 they finished the 198 page compilation of The Guinness Book of Records. The first instalment didn’t sell well. However, news soon spread. By Christmas 1955, the book became the number one best-seller in Britain. In 1956, it launched in the USA. Sixty years later, in 2015, The Guinness Book of World Records, as it’s now known, has officially sold 100+ million copies in 100 countries in 37 languages. This makes it the highest sold copyrighted book in history.

On its sixtieth anniversary, what’s baffling is why does The Guinness Book of World Records keep baffling us year after year? The answer lies in the word ‘extreme’, and a little bit more.

We’re fascinated by extremes because extremes aren’t the average. The average is what we see every day. Anything outside the average lights up our eyes and our mind. An average person won’t capture our attention, but the tallest and the smallest person; the heaviest and the lightest person; and others likewise will. There’s more to extremes, though.

There are constant extremes and there are moving extremes. Constant extremes are universally accepted facts like Mount Everest is the highest peak in the world. Moving extremes are the extremes that change from time to time. During special years like an Olympic Year; or a World Cup Year current extremes will be moving and some existing records will certainly be broken. It’s the moving extremes or records that attract us and keep us fascinated. In a BBC interview in 1979, Norris McWhirter mentioned that 22-23% of current records become outdated each year. Keeping the mind constantly baffled by records of extremes was one skill the McWhirter twins were very good at.

Record Breakers was a BBC TV Show for children, aired between December 1972 and December 2001. The McWhirter twins would appear on the show and answer questions from a panel of children. The record breaking feat was that the twins did so from memory. After Ross McWhirter’s assassination in 1975, Norris continued. As time went on, the compiling team grew larger as the book was translated into more and more languages and more and more records were made and broken.

The Guinness Book of World Records is testimony to our fascination for extremes. One Guinness Record may never be broken: won’t there be next year’s edition of the book? Your guess is as good as mine.

Asrar Chowdhury teaches economic theory and game theory in the classroom. Outside he listes to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: asrar.chowdhury@facebook.com

Echoes 37. 150 Years of Alice and Wonderland. Thu Aug 20, 2015

Echoes 37. 150 Years of Alice and Wonderland. Thu Aug 20, 2015

Echoes 37. 150 Years of Alice and Wonderland
BY Asrar Chowdhury

Shout, The Daily Star, Thu Aug 20, 2015
http://www.thedailystar.net/shout/echoes/150-years-alice-and-wonderland-129307

On the afternoon of July 4, 1862, two Oxford Dons, Charles Dodgson and Robinson Duckworth, went on a boat ride up the River Isis, a tributary of the Thames. Three sisters – Lorina, Alice, and Edith – accompanied them. They were the daughters of Henry Liddell, then Dean of Christ Church College, and later Vice Chancellor of Oxford.
Alice became restless. She kept pestering Dodgson, ‘Tell me a story.’ ‘No. Not this time. Next time,’ Dodgson replied. The three sisters united, ‘It is the next time!’ The boat trip would end at Godstow, four miles from where they started.
Duckworth was getting tired of rowing. Dodgson, who would soon become Lewis Carroll, saw some rabbits. He looked at Alice. Then he noticed that one of the rabbits fell down a hole. The passengers, young and old, were transported to a ‘place like no place on Earth; a land full of wonder, mystery and danger.’
After they returned to Oxford, Alice pleaded. ‘Please Mr Dodgson. Would you write the story down for me?’ Carroll did. He painstakingly hand wrote the manuscript in a journal. To make the reading imaginative, he drew pictures. He practiced each page and each drawing more than once before writing in the journal. In November 1864, Lewis Carroll gifted Alice the handwritten manuscript as his ‘Christmas Carol’, with a dedication, ‘A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer Day.’ What was the story? Alice’s Adventures Underground.
Carroll decided to print Alice’s Adventures. He presented it to the writer George MacDonald for approval. Mrs MacDonald read the story to their children. The toddlers would be enthralled each time they heard their Mother read. Mr MacDonald advised Carroll to make the story longer. In came the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. Carroll persuaded John Tenniel of Punch to do the illustrations. In 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published. One hundred and fifty years later, we still wonder if Wonderland ‘is impossible, and then tell ourselves, ‘only if we believe it is.’
Alice and Wonderland is a children’s story unlike any other. There are two Alice’s in Wonderland. The first is the little Alice to whom Carroll tells a story. Little Alice finds herself in an adult’s world that makes no sense. The other Alice is Carroll himself. After enjoying a childhood full of freedom with his seven sisters, Carroll finds himself at Oxford, which in Victorian times demanded strict order from its teachers, which made no sense to Carroll’s childhood. Carroll was a mathematician. Thus with logic, math and imagination, he portrays Alice and Wonderland to a child, and unknowingly to himself, too.
Carroll’s adult friend Duckworth was rowing that day. It was very hot. Carroll needed to keep the story amusing to all the passengers. May be, this is why Alice and Wonderland appeals to both children and adults with sense that’s actually non-sense.
In the end, you ask yourself: Was Wonderland a dream or was it real? ‘If it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.’ Surely, you can’t go back to your childhood in reality. Like Carroll and Alice you were a ‘different person yesterday.’ There is a way of going back, though. ‘Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.’
Who cares if our reality is different from others and that everybody in Wonderland is mad! We’re ‘already late’ for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Down the Rabbit Hole! Off to Wonderland for another 150 years and more.

Asrar Chowdhury teaches economic theory and game theory in the classroom. Outside he listens to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: asrar.chowdhury@facebook.com

Echoes 36. A Salty History. Thu Jul 30, 2015

Echoes 36. A Salty History. Thu Jul 30, 2015

Echoes 36. A Salty History
BY Asrar Chowdhury

Shout, The Daily Star, Thu Jul 30, 2015
http://www.thedailystar.net/shout/echoes/salty-history-118789

 

Where would we be without salt? In ancient Rome, we wouldn’t earn a salarium. Salt derives from the Latin sal (and thus salary).  The Romans used to pay their soldiers in salt. They put salt in all of their sauces and called it salsa (salty). The French got rid of the ‘l’ and called it sauce. The Spanish kept the ‘l’ and danced the salsa. The Romans called salted meat salsicuss. The French called it saucisse, from where we get sausage in English, while the Germans decided to call their thinly cut salted pieces of meat salami. Our relation with salt is more than just salacious, which also derives from salt.

 

 

Today we take salt for granted. We can produce salt in factories anywhere in the world. This wasn’t the case in ancient times. There are only two natural sources of salt: sea salt and rock salt from salt mountains. Natural sources of minerals are either limited in supply where found or are not available at all in some places. Before refrigeration, salt was vital for preserving food to be eaten when there was no harvest. The Arabs would use salt to dry meat. People in Bengal would use salt to dry fish. People in Northern China and Mongolia would use salt to dry vegetables. This usefulness of salt in preserving food had two consequences. #Shout First, rulers had to make sure they could control the production and sales of salt. Second, rulers had to ensure its supply during wars.

 

Before World War I, armies had mules, horses, and elephants. Army generals needed salt to feed the animals and to preserve food for the troops. If one army could deny the opponent salt, their chances of winning would increase. One factor behind why the Northerners won the US Civil War of the 1860s is they could deny the Southerners access to salt. When Napoleon retreated from Russia in 1812, many of his troops and animals died on their return because the French army ran out of salt.

 

There was a time not too long ago that salt taxes were a part of life. The Ottomans of today’s Turkey realised the strategic importance of salt. Salt producing villages in the empire were exempted from paying cash taxes. Rulers of other empires weren’t as wise as the Ottomans. Salt was one of the factors why the British had to leave their “Jewel in the Crown,” India.

 

Ancient India was no stranger to salt taxes. However, these taxes went beyond the tolerance of the public from the times of the East India Company. The British Salt Act allowed only the British to produce and sell salt. Indians were forced to buy salt from the British with a high tax. The Salt Tax hit the poor the most because salt was a vital ingredient of their diet. On March 12, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi marched peacefully with a handful of followers from his Sabermanti Ashram in Ahmedabad. As they passed from one village to another, more and more people joined. By the time The Mahatma reached the coastal town, Dandi, on the Arabian Sea on April 5, there were tens and thousands of followers peacefully protesting against the unjust Salt Tax. The rest was history.

 

 

The people of Persia (Iran) have a custom that crept into our culture. If you accept salt (namak) from someone at dinner, even if that person is your enemy, you don’t harm the person (namak haraam). For dessert, let’s finish off with the British. Read this with a ‘pinch of salt’. Find out the rest for yourself. Don’t completely believe everything you read.


Asrar Chowdhury teaches economic theory and game theory in the classroom. Outside he listens to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: asrar.chowdhury@facebook.com

Echoes 35. John and Alicia In Thick and in Thin. Thu Jun 11, 2015

Echoes 35. John and Alicia In Thick and in Thin. Thu Jun 11, 2015

Echoes 35. John and Alicia In Thick and in Thin
BY Asrar Chowdhury

Shout. The Daily Star, Thu Jun 11, 2015
http://www.thedailystar.net/shout/echoes/john-and-alicia-thick-and-thin-95026#

We’re always playing games.  Sometimes we play together.  Sometimes we play against each other.  Sometimes we play the same game only once. Other times we play the same game more than once. Sometimes we know enough information about each other. Other times we don’t know enough about each other. No matter how we play a game, we will all be happy if the following two statements are true at the same time.


1:
I am doing the best I can, knowing you and others are also doing the best you can.

2: You are doing the best you can, knowing I and others are also doing the best we can.

 

If any one of the above statements is not true, at least one of us won’t be happy. In that case, we won’t reach what has now become folklore, a Nash Equilibrium.
My introduction with John Nash was not through the 1998 biography Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar or the 2001 Oscar winning movie by the same name in which Russell Crowe made Nash a household name. Although I was vaguely familiar with Game Theory and the Nash Equilibrium ever since the first Nobel in Economics for Game Theory in 1994, it was not until January 2011 when the Economics Department of North South University asked me to take their Game Theory course that I entered a world to which I respond with pleasure whenever a call comes.

 

Before I made an effort to learn Game Theory and the impact of the Nash Equilibrium, I couldn’t make rhymes and reasons of many phenomena in economics. The simplicity of the Nash Equilibrium and the coincidence that my birthday is on June 12, and Nash’s on June 13 made me more and more inquisitive about Nash.

 

Economics is no stranger to mathematicians. Ever since the middle of the 19th century, mathematicians have come and gone with one model after another. What makes Nash unique is that he remains one of the few mathematicians who can show original mathematical contributions in both economics and pure math. We have a romanticised notion when it comes to a genius. It’s true that Nash lost 30 years in his life, but it’s also true in between 1948 (when he came to Princeton for a PhD) and around 1960 when he started hearing voices in his head, Nash had introduced his equilibrium for Game Theory and also solved Reimann’s problem in differential geometry now known as the Nash Embedded Theorem. Nash also made original contributions in differential equations and topology. By the beginning of the 1960s, Nash had established himself as one of the finest mathematicians of his time.

 

Behind every great man is an even greater woman. This is where John Nash remains John Nash thanks to his loving wife, Alicia Nash. Nash’s colleagues at Princeton always had the time and space for him, but to get out of schizophrenia was unheard of. It needed the unconditional love and patience of Alicia to help John make a comeback from schizophrenia. What a comeback it was with a Nobel Prize in economics in 1994 and an Abel Prize for his contributions in mathematics in 2015.

 

Thanks to Alicia, Nash opened a world of game theory for me and my students. Like Alicia, I wouldn’t have been able to experience the ‘beautiful math’ were it not for my students. Nash made me appreciate that intuition is the most powerful mathematical tool. Like Romeo and Juliet, John and Alicia’s marriage was made in the heavens. Like Romeo and Juliet, they left the world together, two ‘beautiful souls’, hand in hand, in thick and in thin.


Asrar Chowdhury teaches economic theory and game theory in the classroom. Outside he listens to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: asrar.chowdhury@facebook.com

 

Echoes 34. Happiness is a Function of Need, Not Greed. Thu May 21, 2015

Echoes 34. Happiness is a Function of Need, Not Greed. Thu May 21, 2015

Echoes 34. Happiness is a Function of Need, Not Greed
BY Asrar Chowdhury

Shout, The Daily Star, Thu May 21, 2015
http://www.thedailystar.net/shout/echoes/happiness-function-need-not-greed-84682

You have a fixed amount of two goods: X and Y. You like both X and Y. A kind person offers you a little bit more of only X (or only Y). You accept. You’re happier now than you were before. Graphically, you’re moving either vertically up or horizontally right. Both movements make you happier than before.
The kind person now offers you a little bit more of both X and Y.  You jump for it. Graphically, this means moving north-east from where you are now. A movement towards the north-east is logical. If you like something and you can get more of it then you prefer it to the less that you have at the moment. Although intuitively appealing, the hypothesis of ‘more is preferred to less’ can mean that people fail to separate greed from need.

 

The kind person again offers you more of both X and Y. You’re elated once more. You move a little bit more towards the north-east. The kind person appears again. Again, he offers a little bit more of both X and Y. Again, you happily accept.

 

As you receive more and more of X and Y, you start to become less and less happier than before. You stop becoming happier, when your needs (demand) for X and Y have been fulfilled because there’s an upper limit to enjoying X and Y. The kind person offers you more of both X and Y.  Now we’ve reached a critical point.

 

Let’s assume you fail to understand that you can’t become happier after receiving a maximum of both X and Y, but you say yes to the kind person thinking more will make you happier. What will happen? You’ll be a little less happy than before. You’ve crossed the maximum amount of X and Y that could have made you happy. You’re no longer moving north-east. You’re moving towards the south-east now. That’s moving downwards, isn’t it? You’re now getting less and less happy in spite of getting more and more of X and Y from the kind person.
After the maximum, if you carry on accepting the kind person’s gift, you’re surrendering to greed, not fighting any more for need.

 

Money and wealth make us happy only as long as we truly need them. The emphasis is on ‘need’. After reaching a maximum, more money and wealth don’t necessarily translate to more happiness. After the maximum point, if we still hanker after money and wealth for the sake of doing so, we become greedy. We don’t ‘need’ them, but we chase them in a mad rat race.

 

If you really need something and you work hard towards getting it, you feel happy in the end when you do get it. If you never really needed something to begin with, then wanting it won’t feel like a good idea in the end if you do get it. There is a distinction between need and greed. You won’t get everything in life, but then you could get something that you need. Which one’s better? Food for thought.

 

Asrar Chowdhury teaches economic theory and game theory in the classroom. Outside he listens to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: asrar.chowdhury@facebook.com

Echoes 33. A Good Monopoly is a Creative Monopoly. Thu May 7, 2015

Echoes 33. A Good Monopoly is a Creative Monopoly. Thu May 7, 2015

Echoes 33. A Good Monopoly is a Creative Monopoly
BY Asrar Chowdhury

Shout, The Daily Star, Thu May 7, 2015
http://www.thedailystar.net/shout/echoes/good-monopoly-creative-monopoly-80805

 

Remember the orange bazaar in Sylhet where millions of identical oranges were selling? No seller or buyer was big enough to influence the market. Competition was cut-throat. Each seller’s profit-margin was very thin. In course of time, some clever sellers saw a business opportunity and decided to pack oranges in boxes of ten.

 

Buyers were happy to pay a little extra. The clever sellers started to gain what economics defines as ‘market power’, sell above the average market price. An extreme case of market power is a monopoly. In economics, a monopoly or a firm with market power is usually looked at with suspicion.

 

A state monopoly emerges because the government wants one firm to supply piped water, immunization or print its money for social or security reasons. A private monopoly arises when a firm gains an edge, for example a patent to manufacture a particular medicine. This edge allows the firm to enjoy profits for some time.

 

This edge also ensures new firms find it difficult to enter the market. Alas! Economics has focused more on the abuse of market power than the potential market power has in improving choices and opportunities. Let’s return back to the orange bazaar in Sylhet and see why a monopoly or a firm with market power needs to be creative if it wants to stay alive.

 

The clever orange sellers in Sylhet keep on making profit. They now have surplus to invest in new ideas. After packs of ten, they introduce home delivery and fresh orange juice in tetra packs. With funds to invest in research they develop more and more orange varieties for which Sylhet is famous. Are the buyers happy? They probably are. Although they have to pay extra for each of the new products, they now have a wider range of products to choose from and also a convenience the orange bazaar could never have offered. Now arises a critical moment.

 

Gaining monopoly power through creating an edge gave the clever orange sellers an incentive to think about new ways to sell oranges. The success of the sellers doesn’t go unnoticed. Less clever orange sellers see the possibility of making profits. If these sellers can also do what the clever orange sellers are doing, soon the clever orange sellers will see their profits evaporating. They won’t have the additional funds to launch new ideas. If the clever sellers want to preserve their monopoly power, they need to be creative so that new firms genuinely find it difficult to enter the market. Creative monopolies do this for their own sake by adding value through innovation. Think about Apple and Samsung mobile phones.

 

Over time, both Apple and Samsung have created a base of loyal customers by creating value through genuinely good products. A certain percentage of their customers will therefore always remain with them. What about the customers in the middle who are undecided? How do Apple and Samsung attract or keep them? Again, by creating value through innovation. Apple and Samsung flagship phones have to have something genuinely new to offer. Otherwise undecided customers may not want to stay with them. Even worse, if the new features aren’t good enough, other companies will see the prospect of making their own versions and attract the undecided Apple and Samsung customers.

 

Monopoly firms can and do abuse their power, but they also have to be creative if they want to stay in business. This second side of monopolies is almost always overlooked in a Principles of Economics course.  A good monopoly has to be a creative monopoly. Otherwise, they’ll  become fossilized like the dinosaurs.

 

Asrar Chowdhury teaches economic theory and game theory in the classroom. Outside he listens to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: asrar.chowdhury@facebook.com