“French Fries” Our biology and the fault in our utility functions

I step out of my house and ‘beep, beep’, unlock my little red hatchback.

I stop in my tracks. A whiff of comfort hits me in my face. I inhale a heavenly aroma, trying to place the name of the food object, multitasking with turning on my ride’s air-conditioning and answering my coffee partner’s call. My brain refuses to dedicate mental bandwidth[1] to answering this question, and focuses on reversing the car out of the porch and out on the street, partly because I just had late lunch and the stomach has not transmitted the ‘hungry’ signal to the brain. I turn on the radio and quickly finish my call, pacifying my date that I will be only 15 minutes late (in Islamabad that is a mortifying crime because that is 50% of total travel time). Enjoying one of the popular grooves of the season on the radio, I dally my way to the coffee shop. By the time I reach my destination, battling the road rage and the looming migraine (result of clashing temperatures of the air-conditioning and my freshly washed hair), hunger is as far from me as Kashmir from Karachi[2].

Conversation flows and after a bit of catching up, I become aware of the snooty glances of the waiters in the coffee shop. Wary of customers taking more time on their space than their orders, the men dressed in black and white, make all the effort to make eye-contact with me. Thoroughly enjoying my conversation, I feel I have played the furtive glancing game long enough. Reluctant to dedicate my brain cells to making a decision on what I wanted to eat or drink, my behavior had obviously become suspicious. With a weary ‘heart’ (more specifically used up mental bandwidth), I beckon the server to take my order. Scanning the menu at least ten times, I remain undecided because I remain unfocused. One part of my brain focusing on the details of the conversation, the other trying to figure out what I want. My system 2[3] is visibly engaged so it falls upon system 1 to take the fall for both of is.

The 11th scan of the menu leaves me dissatisfied for I see nothing that would ‘feel’ right. Continuing the conversation and still trying to conjure up a name for what I ‘feel’ like having, I re-create the battle of Panipat[4] in my mind. Suddenly, it hits me and a passionately exclaim, “French Fries”.

“Would you be able to make some French fries? It doesn’t say on the menu but I thought I’d ask.”

The server smiles at me painfully, yet replies in a glorious “Yes”.

Twenty minutes later, I order another bowl. Two cups of tea later, I finally finish the conversation and head towards another gathering of friends. More tea and rounds of conversation, as is typical in the Capital of my beloved country. It can be contested, but I do believe this is the conversation capital of the country too. New people join the conversation and more tea is ordered. A few say they feel peck-ish and wouldn’t mind a snack. The idea is rather appealing and I return to scanning the menu again. A friend of mine pipes rather enquiringly, as if asking permission or seeking validation, “Can I order fries?”

“Most certainly you can Madam”

“Then I WILL order fries”

A gleam of mischief spreads over her face. I cannot help ask why.

“I have been thinking about fries since the entire evening, all through the hike and all through the drive to this tea shop.”

This did not seem like an odd statement. My friends and I have openly acknowledged our fantasy-oriented relationship with food. However, when I ask her why she has been thinking of this, her reply lights something up in my mind.

“When I was leaving home, I caught a whiff of someone making fries in my neighborhood and since then I have been craving good, spicy, French fries.”

It all suddenly made sense. System 1 was at work. It was making the senses go awry. When our System 2 was distracted by more cognitively challenging tasks, System 1 had its way and told the brain it wants the ‘unhealthy’ dose of carbs that got programmed into the menu of wants, inspired by a few aromatic experiences earlier in the day.

When I ordered fries on the café earlier that day, I had fallen prey to the “illusion of choice”, comfortable in the idea that I was ordering something I wanted. Refusing to select from the menu offered to me, I had reinforced my ‘want’ by choosing something that was not available on the paper in front of me. Little attention did I pay to the impact that an environmental stimuli had on me, long before I entered the decision framework of an economic decision.

There are numerous instances daily, where our decisions are affected by factors that we are not consciously aware off in the moment. In retrospect we may evaluate the efficacy of our decisions in many different frameworks, however, while making the decision, we are seldom aware of the exhaustive list of ‘influencers’ in our decision making. Does that mean our preferences can be influenced by unpredictable factors? Do the existing models of choice and preferences take into account the possibility of such factors? Is it then justifiable to assume transitivity[5] and consistency of choices according to the utility theory?[6] Do we need a more realistic model of preferences and utility now that we are becoming more aware of the framework in which humans beings make choices and recognize the susceptibility of human preferences?

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] The term is taken from the book, “Scarcity” by Sendhil Mullianathan and Eldir Shafir. It refers to the capacity of the brain to engage in various cognitive exercises including thinking, feeling and making decisions. The idea is that mental bandwidth is also a scarce resource and so the economic principles of resource allocation apply to this as well. Mental bandwidth is the most valuable resource among resources and therefore must be used with care, keeping in mind that the opportunity costs are higher than in other resources.

[2] Two cities/places in Pakistan that are on opposite sides of the land region longitudinally. Kashmir is in the mountains in the north and Karachi is near the cost in the south.

[3] This idea comes from the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” authored by Daniel Kahneman. System 1 is the intuitive mind which functions on memory and experience. System 2 is the critical thinker that evaluates facts and logic to process information. This is a simplification to explain the different tendencies of human brain to process information. System 1 is active most of the time and allows the System 2 to acquire important information while it manages the other functions for which the brain is required.

[4] A place 60 miles north of Delhi where several iconic battles were fought in the Indian Subcontinent.

[5] Transitivity is one of the assumptions economists make while determining or modelling preferences that deduces facts about choices. So if Tom prefers A over B and B over C, then Tom is rational if he always prefers A over C.

[6] The utility theory is an economic theory that aims to predict or model how an individual would proceed to make decisions related to their economic well-being. The decisions relate to choosing a bundle of goods for consumption.

The Red Lanterns, Jharoka and Jhanjhar

I am free.

Free to squirm through the metal grills that encapsulate the sweaty windows.

Free to sit on the minaret of the old mosque in the rustic neighborhood of a town, strewn with relics from the sub-continent’s monarchs.

Free to watch the sunset from the Jharoka of the window in the tiny corner room of an ancestral house. A house with intricately patterned domes, delicate flowers embedded in the stone balconies, wooden door posts reminiscing the grand era of Nawabs[1] and Rajahs[2], and a prison to my movement.

I am free now.

Free to sit on the roof with the pigeons, free from the relentless gaze of the next door Maulvi [3] and Pehlwan [4] from across the street. I can stay there all night without my Dupatta and not worry about being intruded upon.

Free to dance in the rain in my muslin shalwar kamiz[5], oblivious to the contours of my female body.

I can be one with the monsoon breeze and the raindrops that drip gingerly from the Jharoka of my solitary imprisonment.

I can watch the sunset and witness the stars pop out in the night sky sprawled on my back and not care about whose gaze would pierce my unfettered joy.

On the contrary, I can stare and gaze at the street below all I want, for no one sees me anymore. I can look at the ornamental rickshaws skirt their way in the muddy street, dodging fruit carts and motorbikes and dupatta clad slender waist-ed Punjabi women balancing earthen matka(s)[6] on their head I can play the Sitar placed in the corner of my prison room without having to leave the edge of the roof wall I am ensconced upon right now. I am invisible. Could I be invincible now?

I am free to wander into the infamous quarters with red lanterns. I won’t have to peek through the frilly curtains in the flimsy wooden windows to see what happens when all but the lanterns are lit in those rooms of amorous embraces.

I am free to loiter the dark alleys leading me to the clinkering sounds of delicate Jhanjhar on slender soft feet of the nymphs that exist in the damned quarters. I can hear their giggles, their sobs, their lovemaking and their assaults. I no longer need to fear for my own skin, I don’t have the fear of being discovered and then harmed.

I can see so much but I cannot un-see it anymore. I can chance upon something that I would wish I had never seen for it destroys something in the remnant of my existence.

I have now seen the hairy, pot-bellied lovers of the delicate nymphs, drooling beasts who see nothing but the object of their desire. Not a woman, not a human. But I can no longer channel the cringe through the goosebumps on my arms. There is no body to quiver at the sight.

I have now seen the rats gnaw at the mangled bodies in the morgues of public hospitals. I feel the disgust at the grotesque sight but I can no longer puke and relieve myself of it. I have to simply bear with it.

I have seen the ants tear the blued flesh of corpses in graveyards. I cannot shudder with horror anymore.

I have seen the truckers mix dangerous chemicals in infant milk powders and smuggling them across borders in the middle of the night. I cannot scream or call them out.

I have seen young doctors operate on poor helpless laborers and take their organs out and sell them to masked men in dark corridors. I cannot even shed tears to lament my helplessness.

I see it all now. I do more than see. I inhabit now. I am one with the soul of the universe and yet I feel distinct.

I want to shriek and move the foundations of the mountains. I want to squeal with joy at the sound of the sea gull swooping down to grab its prey. I want to pen all that I felt, describe all the sensations that I was capable of feeling every second of existence. No more.

I had that body for seventy years. Forty out seventy of those years, I could have done better than to mope around with questions on my existence. [7] The helpless nights where I would squirm and shift begging for sleep to embrace me, I could have enjoyed the starry night. I could have enjoyed the feeling of a sinking heart on those days where I felt like a punching bag in the circumstances. I could have celebrated the adrenaline rush when I was rightfully angry at something and could smash things and threaten destruction to all in my path. I could rejoice at the huskiness of my voice in a throat infection, for I could gently talk to a child or someone who needed to hear reassurance in hushed tones. There were endless possibilities of using those arms and limbs, those nerves and skin, those eyes and lips, and yet I could not think beyond the imprisonment and limitation it posed on me. What I had then I cannot have now. What I have now I could not have had then. Why did I not just enjoy what I had?

Why did I not rejoice on the kaleidoscopic shadows of the red lantern neighborhood, why did I not see the diamonds in the raindrops of my window’s Jharoka, why didn’t I dance fearlessly in the rain, enamored by the music in my Jhanjhar?

 

[1] Nobles or local rulers in the Mughal Era
[2] Local Kings or Rulers in the Mughal Empire but with a non-Mughal lineage.
[3] Priest
[4] Wrestler
[5] An outfit commonly worn across Pakistan that comprises of a shirt usually knee length with loosely fitted trousers.
[6] A round hollow mud pot commonly used in Punjab to store water. It is also known as Ghara.
[7] Just in case no one gets it. This is simply an exercise in imagination. It is about a woman who dies in her house at the old age of seventy and has spent a life of restlessness for knowing more. The piece is the musing of her soul which is now free to wander the spaces she could not as a living human being. It is the first day of her freedom from her body and how her joy soon turns into the same restlessness she had when she was alive. The grass that seemed greener on the other side of existence is suddenly not that green and now she realizes that this might be eternity.

Yellow Asians Vs Brown Asians

Yellow Asians Vs Brown Asians[1]

Imagine a hall with a ceiling as high as 20 feet, with an intricate network of over-head water pipes ( I have restricted my imagination to water only), as wide as a small tennis field with wooden tables and narrow wooden benches placed carefully all over. Now imagine on one end of the hall there are seven to eight people cooking food, traditional ‘home cooked’ Guangdong food. Imagine these people are Asians.

What comes to your mind?

Yes, yes, it is a cafeteria. What comes to mind when I say Asian?

It depends on where you are from. Half the earth’s continents- let me correct myself. All of the world’s continents with the exception of one, are home to those of us who conjure up images of rice bowls and cone hats when they hear the word ‘Asian’. If you note, I am careful not to say half the world’s population. If you know what I mean?[2]

Let us go back to the cafeteria. It is a school canteen actually. The school is actually a university. The university is one of the few ‘English medium’ universities in China. There is one big table, a blonde, blue eyed German couple in their early twenties sit at the center of the table across each other. Right next to the German girl sits another, a head full of luscious brown hair cropped short, big beautiful eyes, an endearing smile and fiery spirit of a Mexican war-lord, a round faced, tall teddy bear Indonesian boy is right next to her, thick rimmed glasses, animatedly relaying the day’s events so delightfully that one would think he is secretly chewing some yummy candy. An American- born Chinese boy, in a T-shit three times his size, built of an athlete nimble on his feet fiddles with his bottle of coke, sits across the table from me. Our Chinese classmate joins us with a bottle of Tsing- Tao[3] seeming a bit nervous and constantly glancing at the TV screen. There is no important game or news on the TV. He is watching out for his order number. A ticker flashes across the TV screen, lighting up when someone’s order is ready for collection. Soon, he gets up and brings a huge bowl of ‘knife noodle’ to the table. The rest of us are done eating and munch on sunflower seeds (popular snack in Beijing Da Xue[4] atleast). This is his second dinner.

We all know someone who eats like a pig and has nothing to show for it but skin and bones. We can also secretly admit that we die a little inside when we see them eat. We may also be jealous of their metabolism and sometimes it results in a benign racism of sorts.

“Ben (an adopted English name), how lucky you are. You can eat anything anytime and still not gain weight. I wish I had Asian genes”, remarked one of the girls.

I am look at my Indonesian friend then at the American-born Chinese and observe they both shift in their seats. Maybe they feel correcting a white-skinned woman would bring forth the wrath of feminism so they stay quite. The group dynamics are such that I am ordained the role of the ‘kill joy’. My face is aghast with a bit too visible shock.

“Umm, excuse me? I weigh seventy kilograms and I am five feet six inches, I cannot eat whatever I like, I have to watch out portion sizes or else my weight can reach dangerously high limits and guess what I am Asian.”

“Oh, no no no. I meant the Chinese type of Asian”

“Well Asia is a rather big place and that includes central Asia which includes her”- *points at a classmate from Uzbekistan who nods her head vigorously*

“Oh you know what I mean”

Half exasperated at the comment and the extrapolation of how the conversation will end if I get into the technical details ( already infamous for being a kill joy) I shrug my shoulders and proceed to speak my mind.

“Oh you mean the yellow Asians can eat whatever they want?”

Flabbergasted faces on all over the table.

“Umm, yes. I mean the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans”

“Oh, so you mean the South- East Asians”

“Yeah yeah. Not the brown ones. I mean I know people from India, Pakistan are very much like us in their metabolism”

I suddenly feel the warmth of an embrace with these words. Ah, I am not alien but very similar to the people from other continents.

And yet the difference could not have been starker elsewhere in the world.

Flashback to London. A different table, a different cafeteria, a different university, a different set of nationalities represented there. The same ethnic diversity. The same forthrightness characteristic of young people all over, the same propensity to overcome differences and make fun of one’s own biases and stereotypes.

“You applying for jobs, Komal?”

“Yeah, a couple”

“Want to settle here in London”

“No. Not really. If I find something I like I will, but mostly I want to go to China”

“What? China? Why?”

“Stay here and find work”

“It is hard to get a work permit these days”

“Oh yeah! You don’t have an EU or American Passport. Right!!!” *dejected tone*

“Yeah it is hard for Asians to get jobs in the UK these days?”

“Yeah? But I hear from the career center that these big 4’s are hiring Chinese and Koreans left right, center.”

“Oh yeah yeah. I am sorry I meant, you know Indians and Pakistanis, especially Pakistanis”

“Ahan. Yes. I have been getting a lot of interviews and somehow it does not translate into a job when they find out I need a work permit”

“Hmm. Yeah it is getting harder for the Asians I tell you.”

Facepalm. Which Asians? Who are you talking about? The yellow Asians, the white skinned ones with European origins, the ones that are a bit of both? The brown Asians. Which ones, dammit?

 

[1] The dialogues attributed to characters in this account are fictional but the content and characters are real

[2] India and China make up roughly 40% of the world population. Throw in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Srilanka and you have half the world’s population, who can differentiate between yellow and brown.

[3] A type of Chinese beer

[4] Mandarin for Beijing University

Can biological/ emotional beings be indifferent in their curves? Rethink Utility theory and Preferences maybe?

It is a humid summer evening in Shenzhen. We are on the bus 43 to Windows of the World (WOTW). It is a theme park where all the wonders of the world have their miniatures on display and helps the innumerable citizens of the middle kingdom an expensive world tour. WOTW is also a metro station, where Ms. Grocery trip lover (GTL) and I will be taking an underground train to OCT loft. A place rife with budding artists in Shenzhen with one of the few Starbucks the city has- a place of refuge from the culture fatigue that can hit an alien any time after the first few months in China.

The 43 from Beijing Da Xue to WOTW left at 5pm. Ms GTL had her lunch at around one pm and her mid- evening snack at around four. A small water bottle kept her distracted till five-thirty pm. I, as usual, am discussing the expanding universe and the role of the Homo Sapien in the macrocosm of the larger order of things. I go on for about a good seven minutes when I realize that Ms GTL has no interest whatsoever in the earth shattering philosophy I have to offer. Despite her highly developed neo-cortex she is not moved by the opportunities of maximizing her utility with my intellectual banter. She has turned absolutely silent, is looking up at the digital ticker announcing the next station. She is fixated on that ticker, registering nothing but still nodding and making incomprehensible approving sounds with her lips sealed.

“Zainab, you are not listening to me!”

“Hmm…Yes. Yes.”

“Zainab!!!” – I raise my voice to get her attention

“Yeah?”

“You are not listening”- I snort at her with a fake angry face

“Umm, Of course I am Frand. You are talking about some, ummm universe thing. Microcosm of macrocosm of the universe and humans and ummm…”

“You find this conversation boring?”

“Uhh no of course not Deer. I am always listening to these things and I love it. I always do. Don’t I?”

“No. Not always. Not when you are hungry. Are you hungry?”

Head thrown down, a puppy face and an endearing voice- “Yes”

Ms GTL seems to not be consistent in her preferences. When asked whether she prefers food over intellectual conversation, she originally responded, obviously intellectual conversation. A few instances like the trip to WOTW and OCT loft revealed that such a preference is not consistently applied over different frameworks. With enough data points over many such trip, it was found that on an empty stomach, the preferences for intellectual conversation is superseded by thoughts of consuming food.*

*Of course there was statistical significance in reaching this conclusion.

Sounds familiar? Yet, does the utility maximization theory allow for such flipping over of preferences? Does it allow for biological factors like hunger into the utility curve?

The metro train moves at its usual pace. With each new passenger, Ms. GTL’s expressions become more entertaining. A frown, grimace, puke face. I see a plethora of emotions flash across her face as people get off and on the train. The digitalized woman voice finally announces OCT loft and the expression of joy in Ms. GTL’s face betray her excitement. The usual pasta in mushroom sauce and a Margherita Pizza. Sated, we decide to check out the vintage clothes’ shops nearby.

“Isn’t this such a lovely shirt, Frand?”

“Frand, this is RED!”

“Yeah and its great right? You think I should buy this?”

“Deer, it is RED! There is nothing else special about it”

“No. Just look at it. It’s got a great fabric and the color…”- My voice trails off as it suddenly hits me

I have a cognitive bias for the color red.

From the age of one, the color has held a strange lure for me. Anything red draws me towards it uncontrollably. The Homo Sapien simply ignores the Homo Economicus.*

*This conclusion too was reached after sufficient data points were gathered and demonstrated statistical significance.

Do I always buy things because they are red? No.

Am I always attracted to things red in color? No.

Then why do I find the color red has some kind of captivating power over me?

How does the utility maximization theory explain this inconsistency in buying behavior?

Neuroscience and psychology may have an answer.

Every time, I find myself uncontrollably drawn to consumer goods either packaged in red or containing red somewhere, I observed another element in the situation. I am distracted. My pre- frontal cortex( center of all decision making and critical thinking) is not active and my primal instincts take over. This has happened due to a variety of reasons. I have been hungry, sleep deprived, exhausted, multi- tasking (like talking about philosophy to a hungry friend), emotionally disturbed or planning something else that engages the Pre- frontal Cortex.

Do our existing utility functions factor in emotional volatility affecting our preferences?

Maybe it is time to rethink the utility functions, we sometime erroneously believe to be the Ten Commandments of economics as a social science. Maybe it’s time to introduce a more interdisciplinary approach to understanding economic decision making. It is really about understanding human behavior and maximizing human welfare, after all. Isn’t it?

If you can imagine it, it must exist – Of wandering in Istanbul

Dream catchers and cashmere scarves, hung lazily in the smallish spaces, Istanbulites introduce as “scurry shops” or maybe what my eccentric, fiercely Turkish in her genes but rather dubious of that origin and a firm belief of having Nordic or maybe Germanic ancestors, calls them. What she means by scurry is not really the meaning an average English speaker would mean, even if English was not their first language. She means that these shops are overpriced and aimed at looting foreigners (creatures who are naïve enough to fall for merchandise just because it looks pretty and is not even representative of real Turkish traditions) while they are scurrying past them to reach Istiklal street. You can trust economists and creatures like them to take the magic away from everything, something I often find myself guilty for. But there is magic in dreams and a natural born lucid dreamer can verify that for you.

But is there magic in imagination too? I want to apologize for the nuisance value of the neuro-economist creeping in, but the fact that human mind thinks in images as well as the fact that research now claims that the human mind accumulates an inventory of images that it draws upon  and one cannot conjure up images that one has not consciously or subconsciously seen somewhere (I hope there is more development in this area) because during my state of lucid dreaming, I come across places and architectural details that I do not remember viewing ever in my waking life nor having read about it; except for this recent one where Paris and Istanbul are just districts in the same city and there is a concert in another that I am trying to get too. Extending the research on image inventory, neuroscientists and psychologists who specialize in dreams explain this by asking a question, “Have you ever encountered someone in your dream that you do not know?”

The answer would be no for most people. We either view friends, family, celebrities, famous people and maybe our secret crush. And from my own little knowledge about dream comes from the movie “Inception”, where the brain is actually capable of attacking foreign bodies in a dream. Scientists must be right about ‘no strangers in a dream’, then? Maybe that is why I feel more comfortable in my dreams because there are no elements being introduced and therefore no social anxiety. (I know those who know me personally will claim this is a sympathy seeking tactic on my part for I am forever present on major social events within my circle of friends and acquaintances, seem to enjoy company and commotion, and am available almost all the time for obnoxious early morning breakfast plan. And yet I admit to not enjoying more than one additional human being in my space at a time- hint that is why I do better in one on one breakfast plans). Familiarity is comforting to the human brain and therefore we enjoy the company of childhood friends, for at least an hour or so until we realize they have become a starkly different human being than you and conversational topics have fewer over laps in the Venn diagram of conversation? We also experience warmth and comfort when we listen to an old song that we were introduced to during our formative years (our romantic teens or melancholic teens maybe?) even if we hated or criticized from our core at the time.

 

Questioning ‘Rationality’ and the myth of Homo Economicus – The case of Amygdala taking over in market crashes and finding answers in NEURO-ECONOMICS

Sir Robert must have patted himself on the back when he installed Mir Jaffar as the Nawab of Bengal in 1757 after killing Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah in the Battle of Plassey.

“What a jolly good day!” he must have remarked as he got dressed on the morning of 24th June, 1757, for this would be a day of celebration from what would become his most remembered military success.

Of course no one really pays attention to the historical footnote that the success of this battle rested not in the brilliance of military tactics or political acumen but on the treachery of Mir Jaffar to his master Siraj. Clive was confident of this characteristic in Jaffar. He knew Jaffar’s Amygdala will drive him to betray his master and to play into the hands of the East India Company- the undisputed pioneers of corporate globalization in at least the Indian Sub-continent. So did Sir Robert Clive make a name in history based on his impeccable application of the Rational Choice Theory, calculating that since Jaffar preferred ruler ship of Bengal over kin, he would be willing to overthrow his own and side with the British businessmen even if it meant nominal leadership, because Jaffar was Transitive in choosing a ‘bundle of goods’. Or did he rely on the emotional response of a human brain to a given a situation where he has a sense of being wronged?

Either way his calculations were pretty much on point and the Crown as well as the ‘House of Commons’ were rather supportive until 1769, when Haider Ali of Mysore captured the fort of Malbagal, St George and eventually the town of Madras. All the executive decisions by the Court of directors and calculations from the Crown regarding Bengal[1] being the most valuable territory from an economic (read extortionist) point of view, sort of fell flat on their face. When the news reached London in the May of 1769, the market crashed. The East India Company faced its Great Crash that summer when stock price fell from 284 to 122 pounds on the London Stock Exchange. All policy decisions regarding recognition of Sovereigns of Indian subcontinent within the British Empire and maintaining “legitimate trading activities without securing the addition of further political and administrative burden” were rendered meaningless in the light of circumstances that Sir Clive and his peers had somehow missed for effective inclusion in their ‘prediction model’. But the markets had responded in what modern day neuro-economists would classify as the most predictable human response to an uncertain situation.

An example for a more recent event in history might better serve us. Most of my generation has only heard of the Great Crash of 1929 and its comparison to the financial crisis of 2008, the horrific aftershocks of which still impact my generation’s decision making. From making career choices to spending patterns (yes, we’d rather spend our hard-earned savings on taking a vacation because who knows what happens to property and youth won’t last forever). The US economy was doing great back then. There was a surplus of agricultural produce, industries especially steel and iron were doubling their returns, and the favorite of many stock market investors, the P/E ratio, of S&P Composite stocks was 32.6 in September 1929, clearly above historical norms. The likes of famous economists like Irving Fisher (famous for his mathematical modelling in financial analysis) had proclaimed, “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” And yet when the slide turned into a crash, there was no stopping it. Over the course of modern history, market crashes have one thing in common, PANIC SELLING.

But wait! Why?

Are we not supposed to be rational beings, who make their financial decisions based on careful calculations and deliberation? Is it not sound intellectual practice to weigh the pros and cons of a decision? Should we not compare the Price-over-Earnings ratio of a stock and its market price and make our buy and sell decisions based on the over-valuation and under valuation of a stock? Should we not always prefer to exploit an arbitrage opportunity? Save that $10 while buying a radio worth $35 at a shop nearby which sells at $25 in the neighborhood 20 minutes away but also when buying a television worth $450 in a shop nearby, which costs $440 in the neighborhood 20 minutes away.

Can this be the reason why financial modelers, mathematicians, economists and analysts at large fail to see the bubbles when they are in the making and fail even more terribly at predicting a crash?

Ever heard of Herd Mentality? (Look what I did there!)

A whole new field of economists and financial analysts has taken birth in the advent of an age of frequent market crashes. They have a one word answer for it. Herd mentality. Ever wondered how a herd thinks? I saw that raised eyebrow. Yeah, you are right. They don’t. Quite appropriate for describing the panic stock markets face in crashes right?

This phenomena got its name based on an analysis of empirical data they have gathered from the many market crashes in history. Have a look at this list.[2] But why on earth does someone need to describe human behavior in the markets as akin to beasts in the wild? Why couldn’t someone just figure out an explanation based on transitively consistent choices? Oh wait, how about utility maximization? Maybe, all these panic sellers were maximizing their utility by selling their stocks at a loss? Why does something massively contradictory to sound financial practices, makes more sense than standard finance and economic theory?

Could it be possible that economists got RATIONALITY wrong?

Could it be that Homo Sapiens are simply just that and not Homo Economicus?

To me even the Herd Mentality explanation did not make sense. It seemed like a partial explanation. Where do we get this herd mentality? Is there a way we can overcome this? Many questions bothered me and I delved into New Economic Thinking, exploring unorthodox ways of thinking about economic and social problems that plague the modern, economically and socially hyper-connected world. From Behavioral Finance to Behavioral Economics, to Experimental Economics (I even designed a risk game which showed that people take risks even when there is no extra reward for it- a contradiction to sound rational financial theory of Market Portfolio). It seemed to make only partial sense. I soon began to realize that Economics (god-forbid) was an incomplete science on its own. It needs an interspersion with discourses from other social sciences that focus on the Homo Sapien. I began to seek answers from sociology, anthropology, psychology and even literature. It still seemed like an incomplete story. Maybe economics needs to drink from a bigger cup. I sought refuge in the hard sciences. Little digging into literature and I ran into the criticism economists already face, The Physics Envy. It seemed rather ‘rational’ to me that more math was not helping anyone. Mathematical models seemed to miss the point altogether. The famous Black-Scholes and Myers model missed it terribly[3]. Their mathematical model, very sophisticated and complex had somehow just not been able to factor in the circumstances that led to the military coup in Thailand that year that proved to be a catalyst to the downfall of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), the profit making center the three mathematicians had established based on their options pricing model.

I turned to the life sciences. Evolutionary biology and Neuroscience. It seemed like another range on the spectrum of answers was opened up to me. This lens made sense when applied to anything I read about human civilization and behavior, in any domain whatsoever. The ideas that Kahneman popularized about the human cognition, naming them System 1 and System 2,[4] had basis in human physiology. The human brain has physical spaces through which emotions are modulated and critical thinking resides in. Below I endeavor to explain in simple language, my infantile attempts at marrying economics with neuroscience, in order to make more sense of the world around me.

Market crashes made all the more sense to me when I understood that the anterior cingulate cortex (involved in emotion modulation) and the pre- frontal cortex (involved in critical thinking and decision making) is overtaken by the amygdala whenever it senses danger in its surroundings. This function of amygdala is rooted in our biology. In the pre-historic era, the human brain’s neo-cortex was still not fully developed[5] and our ancestors relied on sensory inputs from the brain and body to ensure their survival. The brain was trained to be alert to threats from the environment, mostly larger predatory animals. The brain’s system evolved in such a way that made the body more aware of its surroundings by raising adrenaline and cortisol levels in the system, to be able to respond swiftly to impending gloom. That mentality has stayed with us long after existential threats have ceased to hold power over us. So today, even in our culturally crafted environments that present us with no mortal danger, the amygdala in our brain responds in exactly the same way as if the danger was detrimental to our existence, when markets begin to slide. This may seem like a simplistic explanation because it is. There is more to this analysis than meets the eye, but lack of space and the realization that the human brain’s concentration spans on average at about ten minutes, I rest my case for the day.

However, I am not the only one who took this journey through the sciences. Thinkers in economy, philosophy and psychology have made a clearing in the dense forest and enabled the birth of a new discipline, Neuro-Economics. It is a concoction of psychology, neurology, biology, philosophy, history and economics. It seeks to fill that knowledge gap that economics on its own has been unable to. Still, the story is not complete, but with the addition of this vantage point in the repertoire of lenses available to thinkers of the 21st century, we might get rather close to the while picture.

 

[1] Revenue and Reform: The Indian Problem in British Politics 1757-1773 by H.V Boven

[2] http://list25.com/25-of-the-worst-stock-market-crashes-in-history/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/feb/12/black-scholes-equation-credit-crunch

[4] http://bigthink.com/errors-we-live-by/kahnemans-mind-clarifying-biases

[5] https://www.amazon.com/000-Year-Explosion-Civilization-Accelerated/dp/0465020429

After the ground breaking international success of Pindi boy, comes Brown Aunty Syndrome- found in a white male at Heathrow Airport[1]

I hate queues. They are simply a waste of time, whether they are in a grocery store, passport office or the immigration counter at an airport. I always carry a book or have music with me to make the time pass faster. And quite predictable for a human brain, I am usually pre-occupied upon my turn at the counter. This is a disservice I do to myself since I carry the magnanimous green Pakistani passport. Yes, us Pakistani are given exclusive treatment at almost all airports but more so in western countries. And here I am, the intelligent me, in the queue for the flight to the United States of America to attend a friend’s wedding (such suspicious activity). I am immersed in my book, when the signal to move beyond the fated yellow line is given to me by an oldie at the immigration desk. This ma, probably in his late fifties eyes me to toe as I wipe my sweaty palms on t-shirt before I hand him my passport.

“Are you hiding something from me, young lady?” he says

I look up, perplexed at the comment and still in my absentminded state. He beckons me forward and point to my hands. I do a ‘jazz’ hands and show him they are empty.

“Why are your hands sweaty? Are you hiding something from me?” he repeats.

You know that animation they have in cartoons where the light bulb lights above the head when someone gets an idea? Yeah, so that happened.

This little old man, was trying to intimidate me by rubbing a stereotype accorded to green passport holders and was somewhat enjoying that. The jester in me was shaken out of its dumb reverie and could not help herself, and so responded,

“I am not gonna tell you what I am hiding. That will destroy my entire plan”.

He stares at me for a good 10 seconds before he finally got that I too was deriving amusement out of this situation. He probably was not expecting someone to be in a humorous mood after he had glared the hell out of them a minute ago.  Obviously the fun part of his job did not work, so he decided to ask a few more questions.

“Where are you going?”

“To the USA”

“Do you live in the UK?”

“Yes”

“Why”

“I work here. With TearFund”, *I point to my residence card lying alongside my passport with a look on my face that clearly said, pay a little attention here brother!

“Is your family here too?”

“No they are back home in Pakistan”

“Are you living here alone?”

“Yes”

“How old are you?”

“26”

“How come you are not married? How do you parents even allow that? Pakistani parents don’t do that”

*Blank stare on both sides*

This man is asking me why I am not married at 26 because I am a Pakistani, at the immigration desk in Heathrow Airport on way to the US. And I thought, I had left such questions behind when I boarded my flight to London for a master’s degree and especially when I got a job here in the UK. And I pretty much did. I thought I got away from the ‘Chungal’ (trap) of ‘brown aunty questions’ and here I am, standing in an immigration queue realizing that this phenomena does not discriminate between genders, races, nationalities or social status.

“You should get settled in the UK now. Marry someone here”

“OK” *flat stare*

“You should go to Church to meet people”

“I go to Church”

“You should go to church XYZ, you are bound to meet someone you like and someone who likes you”

Are you kidding me? This guy is some brit version of Shaadi Online.

“Umm. Okay”

“I am serious. You should get married really”

“Okay Officer, maybe first I should go attend my friend’s wedding to get some ideas?”

“Yeah. Okay”

Stamps passport and finally lets me go. The queue has grown in the meantime and people are staring at me and giving me odd stares. I am going to petition this Brown Aunty Syndrome to be included in a list of psychological disorders. It is a real problem.

 

[1] True story. Not my own but of someone I know. Would never happen to me because my comic timing is rather haywire

The “Imagine- yourself- in- your- grave” therapy for Chronic insomniacs

You are welcome.

Yes, I know you will be eternally grateful to me for sharing this counter-intuitive, customized, grounded in ‘practical philosophy’, personal success story on defeating insomnia. So yes, You Are Welcome.

But before I share this ground-breaking idea (pun intended), I want to put out a disclaimer. It works for a specific kind of insomnia. It must be rooted in anxiety and the need to exert control over circumstances.

Now, doctors might have their own categories of insomnia. It may simply a function of psychological factors or could have a physiological basis, like having an upside down chemical composition in the brain and body. But it can be detrimental to the brain cells of many of us Homo Sapiens to process the language our brothers and sisters from the tribe of medical science commonly use. Henceforth, I proceed to explain the experiential insomnia that many of our species including the very rational, Homo Economicus are often plagued with.

There is a kind of insomnia that experienced by every teenage who has hit puberty and participated in the fated privilege of appearing in board exams. One must collect some A’s and A* or make it to a certain threshold to survive in this modern-day jungle, or one will be doomed to the abyss of abject poverty, destitute living and infernal hell of hunger. If only these gifted hyperbole artists could be honest with themselves, there is no guarantee in the grades. But no one reveals these petty details to teens with crazy hormones armed with zero strategies to deal with their frenzied emotions. Automatically, insomnia is triggered and circadian rhythms badly disturbed. Sleepless nights are accrued to the passion for the fair headed maiden, or the hallucinations of doom and gloom in a cruel materialistic world, lest one learns the rules of the game at the earliest and beat ‘em by before they do. This kind of insomnia can easily be treated with some critical thinking, passage of time and few healthy habits like aptly timed exercise and bed time curfews and curtailment of caffeine intake, which is considered next to the elixir for immortality in those teen days. I do not consider it chronic.

Another commonly experiences insomnia is the one triggered by embracing parenthood. In this situation, circadian rhythms will remain perpetually disturbed for one reason or the other. It could be the selection of peculiar hours your baby has made for his/her sleep and whims, which must be catered of course with 100% success rate. In this situation, there is no counsellor support that can help. Only a change in logistics, a lot of patience, rather resilience or simply being over tired will work. I consider this worthy of sympathy and support and all my heartiest cheers to those brave souls who are persevering under the yoke, including my own set of loyal warriors. Nonetheless, this does not classify as chronic either.

The other acutely excruciating insomniac experience is the one where a chemical imbalance has occurred in your brain and no matter what story you tell yourself there is no talking yourself out of it. Simply, because something is physically wrong with the brain and body and has to be fixed either through medication, drastic change in diet and routine. However, with the right medication, which is highly dependent on the quality of medical assistance available to the sufferer. This quality varies across different countries, based on economic development as well as investment in medical expertise within the economy. Many people in the world continue to suffer from such physiological conditions and are deprived of suitable treatments. This truly classifies as a severely chronic case of insomnia, where specialized help is required.

And then there is another type. Not as chronic and torturous as the one mentioned above, but enough to present challenge to any normal being. And this is where my “should-be-patented” therapy comes in.

If you are suffering from an insomnia because you feel overwhelmed with life and the complexities it presents based on whatever unique set of hurdles and intricacies your mind has been able to conjure, and no amount of exercise, diet change and stories have made a difference, then maybe it is time to tell yourself a new one.

Every night, or evening or morning, whatever time you decide it is enough and insomnia has to go (but preferably from 10 pm to 2 am each day), try this one trick.

Imagine you are in your grave. Six feet under. You can imagine a coffin or simply being in the ground. The scene comes with a glass top coffin or a wooden top, as per your requirements. Now that you are in your grave, imagine that you are actually alive and can hear everyone and everything (this is to keep things realistic because you are not actually dead you see). However, the key to the success of this strategy is to stick to this one principle. Everyone else thinks you are dead, so even if they try to talk to you, you do not have to respond in any way whatsoever.

Let me delve into the logic of this strategy before you shrug it off or become too horrified at the idea. It is simply helping a brain understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with not being 100% alert all the time because there will eventually come a day when that will not even be possible. That day will come sooner if one is not able to switch off regularly. Therefore, practicing the final destination of a human body, helps relinquish the control we want to exert over our lives by responding to each situation with alacrity and rigour. Just for 6-8 hours every day, you do not need to respond to the situations calling out to you. One can choose which part of the day, one can afford to go into their graves, depending on the logistical arrangements and social obligations one has.

This will work for several reasons:

1) It is a rather realistic story/narrative one can tell their brain

2) It helps put things in perspective and become comfortable with the idea of death, and consequently deals with a lot of other psychological issues

3) Its fun! (I mean fun to let the imagination run wild)

Mulling over making music?

Is there any culture that lacks the divine touch of making music? Making music is seen as an evolutionary process which is also fundamental as the characteristically human activities as drawing and painting. The concept of universal grammar has been traced to the observation of Roger Bacon, a 13th-century Franciscan friar and philosopher that all languages are built upon a common grammar. The expression was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s by Noam Chomsky and other linguists. Many scholars believe that only music has the honor of being called as the only “universal language”.Sussane Langer explains that music, like language, is an articulate form. “Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in so doing they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new colour made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e., its internal structure is given to our perception. Only as an articulate form is it found to fit anything; and since it lacks one of the basic characteristics of language-fixed association, and there with a single, unequivocal reference.”
Aristotle explained 2500 years ago that music is mimetic or imitative. But what does it imitate, the harmony of spheres, or the sounds in the world around us, or Human emotion .To a certain extent all of these are right. What remains the same, however, is the role that emotion plays in the significance of our responses to music. Music does not communicate directly to us however the emotions that reside in a single stroke of a guitar chord or a piano note delivers a certain sense of emotions which can be traced back to culture which assists to educate us.

The meaning and value communicated by music are infinite. They vary from the military march national anthems by the Nazi Horst Wessel to the soft calling of one’s lover in ‘Dasht e Tanhai’ by Iqbal Bano. John Lennon’s quest for an idealistic society in ”Imagine” to the materialistic show off of 50 cents BMW’s and large villas in ‘window shopper’. Edit Piaf’s definition of love in ‘la vie en rose’ to the pessimism of the world in ‘Reign of blood’ by Slayer. The historical symphony of Mozart ‘Fur Elise’ (1867) to the new age sounds of Tiesto. In this essay I have chosen to explore Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elize’, Edith Piaf’s ‘La vie en rose’ (1947) and its renditions by Dean Martin and Celine Dion as well as the fusion piece by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1995) and Eddie Vidder to demonstrate how value and meaning become a part of music during different phases of its construction.
In order to understand where possibly music can become meaningful and valuable we need to understand the different phases of its construction and the different factors that are involved in the construction of music. In order to break it down in the archaeological way – Michel Foucault’s signature style-, we can understand that music comprises of different element. An arrangement comprises of beats and cells, possibly resulting in a harmonized ‘fugue’ like that of Bach’s C minor. Or music can be organized by measure, repetition and variation. There can be passages and pieces and cycles. So construction of music can be broken down piece by piece or arranged into a large scale composition e.g. into a symphony, concerto or sonata. The decision to design a piece of music in a certain format also entails meaning and value. Complexity probably signals quality for a piece of music. The meaning involved can be the musician’s ambition to create a masterpiece or simply an expression of feeling. The rhymes of AABB or ABA or AABA can create a certain feeling in the listener but is mainly an expression by the composer. This theme is well reflected in Wordsworth’s poetry too. Any object he explains is part perception and part absolute reality. Music too derives value and meaning partly from perception and partly from it s absolute quality.

Beethoven’s status as a maestro is undisputed and in my opinion the key feature in all his compositions is the element of arousal. His work makes everyone feel a different way but also contains a unified structure that provides some standardization to the impact it can have on people’s mood and emotions. I take his ‘Fur Elize’ which is said to be dedicated to Therese, a woman whom he proposed but was refused by. One cannot fail to note that the music piece is a representation of some emotions on Beethoven’s part and therefore hold a very specific purpose for him and a unique meaning. However, the value of the piece lies in its universality. Instrumental music is absolute and pure music. Maybe the universality of Beethoven’s work lies in its lack of language and lyric.
In my opinion language can create a certain value and meaning for the person who understands but can also creates value for someone who does not understand the language. However, there cannot be uniformity in the experience and therefore none in meaning and value ascribed. Culture also cannot be ignored when it comes to understanding the value of lyrics and tunes.
I use the ‘Sea Dreamer’ as an example to illustrate how instruments can invoke a sense of cultural specificity and though it can serve to show fusion among different genres; it retains its unique cultural identity. I choose ‘Sea Dreamer’ because it combines the contemporary classical instruments and artists under the umbrella of fusion music. Anoushka Shankar accompanies Sting’s vocals with her accomplishments in sitar. Shankar plays the sitar in a way that it retains it cultural origins while also blending in with western lyrics and instruments. This example serves its purpose of illustrating that the origin of a musical instrument also plays a part in ascribing value to the piece of music. The lyrics and language can also create meaning and display many more nuanced aspects of the chemistry between musicians and musical instruments. Gender and sexuality also play a part in the renditions of the same musical piece. For me each person has their own interpretation of a musical piece and the meaning has much to do with personality, life situations, the history and social circumstances. Musicians are a product of their time and their work is a reflection of their perception of their times.
I illustrate this point further with an example from Edith Piaf’s ‘La vie en rose’ which means ‘ life through rose coloured glasses’ or literally ‘life in pink’ and reflects the pain the vocalist experienced in her troubled past. Growing up in the brothels of Paris, Edith had nothing to take her out of her conditions except her talent with singing. Her version of the song reflects that passion and energy to embrace life as the only precious thing she had. It is a reflection of her own persona too, which includes her gender, her experience of her sexuality and her passion for life. Dean Martin’s rendition in his voice changes the meaning to a different level of passion and a different kind of energy, which makes the point of some standardization of experience (e.g. passion) but also allows the flexibility to the artist and listener in ascribing own value and meaning.
So meaning and value of a musical piece does not lie only in its constructive phases but there is meaning and value creation at every stage of consumption and construction. I stick to Wordsworth philosophy of perception and reality and meaning and value as a subjective process which is part the beholder and part the object.
Such a project was conducted in 1995 when Eddie Vidder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan joined hands to project the universality of meaning and value creation in music. However, they manage to transcend the barriers if language and cultural specificity of instruments. The blend is a delicious mixture not just eastern and western music and instruments but also sentimentality, passion, vigour and transcendentalism.
Vikram Seth’s inspirational novel ‘An Equal Music’ serves as an example of how the process of meaning and value creation is synonymous with life in all its ups and downs, of how it is life long process that does not end with the originator’s life but continues long after.

There are those who say absolute music cannot be defined and quotes Walter Benjamin to support the claim that the process of defining music is useless because the concept cannot live up to the thing it names; but it limits the meaning by making it identical to the concept. So the meaning is situated in an ever changing constellation of elements. Chua describes his method of understanding music as a combination of Water’s constellation, Michel Foucault’s archaeology and Theodor W. Adorno’s dialectic. He attempts to therefore use scientific, unattached method dissecting epistemology for music but offers no synthesis in his dialectic like Adorno. For Chua only instrumental music is pure music, it is the absolute form of music. The meaning for him resides in the fact that it has no meaning. And for him it sediments the pristine features of music if it is associated with theology, cosmology, cartography, philosophy, zoology, anthropology, politics, aesthetics, sex etc.
Meyer  adopts a more daring approach and one that is more prescriptive in its analysis of meaning and value in the construction of music. He begins with asking the fundamental question about what actually makes music great. How can we value a piece of music? Shall we only look at the neat and clean explanation of aesthetics? Or other factors like politics, marketing and metaphysics also involved. Meyer disagrees with the approach social scientists take to understand the value because they dump everything into cultural nuances and serves no purpose. So he questions whether music derives meaning from the referential and associative states that it can arouse? But concludes with a didactic statement on how a good valuable piece of music must have consistency, a unified system of expectation and probabilities and clarity in the basics. He also reckons that complexity has something to do with excellence. However, he warns that a good theme does not necessarily give rise to good works in his comparison of fugues by Bach and Geminiani.
Others have a more all embracing approach to understanding the process of value and meaning creation in construction, that participation invents, validates, circulates and accumulates musical meanings and music maybe a a symbolic entity that is consumed practically, intellectually, individually and communally. This perspective suggests that music acquires its value and meaning through a social process and may not depend entirely on its absoluteness but more on the social value ascribed to it. How  can we distinguish between speech and music as the ‘worldview as intellection of reality’ versus ‘a worldview as the feeling of reality’. The process of meaningful interpretation explicitly conceived as social activity is then a logical explanation of how and why music may acquire a certain value and meaning.

The ‘intransitive understanding’ to expose the relationship between music and context. Music can be a therapy according to the psychoanalytical theories. And it can be used as language to voice the feelings related to psychosexual development that are too nuanced to be put into words or formal language.

There is no consensus on the actual process of meaning and value creation during the creation process of music. It is a natural subjective process that holds a different meaning for different people and contexts. The beauty of nature is purely based on that it has no set rules and likewise art, culture; language is truly a evolutionary process which has no guidelines. The process of the construction of music has absolutely no set of rules. No instructions are valid when developing any form of art. The structuring of art and specifically music is subjective to the writer of it. Putting guidelines to a divine process of melodies would only linger or limit the ability of creativity which one can pour into it. This can be best explained by the compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven. Surprisingly enough he was deaf. How could a person create music with a symphony of 200 plus musicians without hearing a single note to what he has just played? Music does not only remain in the parameters of sounds and beats; it at times goes beyond imagination as a communicator. The process of meaning and value has no beginning and end. For a musician it is always present in his/her imagination throughout the process. What a music writer does require as a pre requisite for creating a melody is a rush of emotions. And emotions are probably the most subjective element in a human being. The real question for the value of a true musician is to quantify emotions into music. The process of finding the emotional rush can vary from the dejection by one’s lover to the beautiful skies of a far off valley. To find inspiration there are no manuals. Yet it might be the easiest thing to do for someone else.

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