My daughter, attending her first year in college, wanted to know how to calculate marginal utility. Utility is a pivotal concept in economics. The utility you have for a Ferrari is perhaps more than what Sachin Tendulkar would have for it. The utility you have for an umbrella right about now is higher than it would be, say, in December. And while we can all imagine that owning a second Ferrari would be great, we can’t imagine what we would do with a second umbrella. What is happening is this: The marginal utility of each additional Ferrari or umbrella is changing.
The previous generation used Paul Samuelson’s classic text Economics: An Introductory Analysis, first published in 1948 and now in its 19th edition, to study the subject. Samuelson, a Nobel laureate who possessed wit, cutting insight and awesome mathematical rigour, transformed not only the way economics was understood, but how it was taught. Today, it is different. You don’t have to even know who Samuelson was. It is enough to quickly look up the Internet—it must, however, be said that not knowing Samuelson expresses a dreadful, even nauseating, poverty of learning. Maybe you ought to look him up first, before moving on to marginal utility (Samuelson wrote his first published article-A Note on Measurement of Utility-as a 21-year-old doctoral student at Harvard).
The Web is a fabulous place for learning (always suspected it, eh?). There isn’t a thing they teach you in class that hasn’t been better expressed by someone on the Internet. Try “marginal utility” to start with. It’s an eye-opener. There are brief explanations, powerful 60-second videos that get to the bottom of the concept with real life examples, seriously interesting classroom exercises on how to use calculus to solve marginal utility problems and how to calculate diminishing marginal utility.
We all know that the Web is a deep information resource. But over the years it has begun to make available a very high quality of learning that is often inaccessible to most of us in real life. Here are some websites you may enjoy and find enriching. This doesn’t mean you skip reading Samuelson’s Economics, should that be an area of interest to you.
Look up AmosWEB (www.amosweb.com) for a stunningly concise collection of lessons in microeconomics and macroeconomics. Microeconomics deals with the study of individuals and companies, markets and industries. Macroeconomics deals with the economy and its attendant characteristics such as inflation, gross domestic product, fiscal policy and business cycles. The two courses are broken up into chapters, and each chapter is highly detailed- but never so deep that you get an I-am-sunk feeling in the pit of your stomach. For example, the lesson on business cycle is broken up into 26 short pages. The page that presents the overview is just five bullet points. I would say that if someone in office gave you grief by using the term “business cycles” and you went “duh?”, this is the place to look up. The site features a way to test yourself on what you have learnt and grade your learning. A professor of economics at the Oklahoma State University develops the course material for AmosWEB.
Don’t skip ahead just because this section is called “Justice”. Isn’t that what we question and deal with each day? The first complete course available online from Harvard is on justice (www.justiceharvard.org). It is by Prof. Michael Sandel, who has taught political philosophy at Harvard since 1980. Prof. Sandel is the author of ‘The New York Times’ best-seller ‘Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?’ His lectures on political philosophy and his examination of everyday life are riveting. Not surprisingly, Prof. Sandel has the kind of following rock stars do. The fascinating aspect of watching this 12-part video series is that it makes you think about yourself. Prof. Sandel and ‘Justice’ are so good, you would probably be willing to give up watching the next season of cricket’s IPL for this.
There are way too many places on the Internet that teach you how to play a musical instrument. But they come with a catch: A few videos are free, and then they try to sell you a self-learning DVD. But if it is real guitar you want to learn, then why not with Gibson, who make what are easily the world’s best guitars? The Gibson website (www2.gibson.com) offers lessons with Arlen Roth, who has performed with Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Don McLean, Pete Seeger, Jack Bruce, James Taylor (tough luck if you were thinking Rihanna and Katy Perry). The site has downloadable video lessons that you can carry away with you for offline use. You can also get the Arlen Roth degree in guitar playing. Roth gives a homework assignment to his students every month and the submissions are uploaded on YouTube. Roth listens to the submissions, offers advice and comment, and a printable report card or certificate is mailed to the student. The lessons are graded for beginner, intermediate, advanced and expert levels, with music styles from blues to funk and rock.
The number of people trying to teach you to cook online is revoltingly large. But hard as you try, you won’t find Nigella Lawson except for a couple of tips and tricks she hands out on a few sites. The place to go to is Jo Sawant’s site, www.sizzlingpots.com. Now Sawant may not be a Nigella Lawson, but she is just as good when it comes to things like Fish Masala Curry (rainbow trout in masala) or a quick-fix shrimp pickle (“Chanda ‘Maushi’ style!” as Sawant puts it on the website). She cooks Indian, Italian, Mexican, French and fusion. And come to think of it, the ex-property management professional does look as glamorous as Lawson when she does all those succulent vegetarian meatball recipes.
Chemistry of sports and the kitchen sink
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has what it calls MIT OpenCourseware (ocw.mit.edu). It makes available almost all of MIT course content, starting with aeronautics and astronautics, and works its way down to biological engineering, planetary sciences, media, management, urban planning and writing—in all, 2,000 courses. For most, this should be adequate for a lifetime of learning. The most popular courses at the moment are the ones on computer sciences, linear algebra and classical mechanics. The site has a separate section for high school teachers and students that can help in the understanding of concepts taught in class. Courses come with one or a combination of the following—lecture notes, assignments and solutions, projects and examples, exams and solutions, images, multimedia. Many of the video lessons, like the 50-minute one on human genetics, have subtitles.
Arun Katiyar is a content and communication consultant with a focus on technology companies. He is a published author with HarperCollins and has extensive media experience spanning music, print, radio, the Internet and mobile phones.
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