Saturday, October 28, 2017

Cough Up Some Patriotism, Please!

Many Indians have a "respect" problem. To them, respect is physical. Bowing down, touching feet, keeping legs uncrossed, standing up, using the words "sir" or "madam" in every sentence, and so on. On the other hand they also have great difficulty in respecting others' time, personal space, or opinions.

They are ignorant of their hypocrisy. And this is what makes them intolerant when it comes to topics like national anthem being completely out of place for movie theatres.

To them standing for 52 seconds for national anthem is their duty towards their country. And their duty ends there. They don't feel the need to stand up against corruption by not paying bribes. They don't feel the need to stand up against bureaucratic inefficiency by demanding rights. They don't feel the need to stand up and be a good citizen in a democracy.

Kindly stand up for the flag when you are reading this part of the post.
Because, you see, like respect, concepts like participative democracy, growth and development, efficiency, and creativity are totally alien to them. They are used to one kind of lifestyle - that of meek subservience. They make it clear that they do not like to be forced to think outside the box. They are comfortable in their zones and are not to be disturbed by provoking thoughts. Their emotions are liable to get (butt)hurt if you consider poking.

You cannot blame them for this. They have been brought up like that. Punishments were the most used tool for teaching and while growing up. And so, everything is tied to fear. And fear manifests as slapstick respect and all the irrelevant physical things that many Indians do to "show respect".

Maybe some of them are literate. Maybe they understand. My sincere piece of advice to them would be to replace respect and fear with love. Love thy country. Love thy countrymen. Let love guide you into doing wonderful things for the country and humanity in toto.

More importantly, don't judge my patriotism by your standards. Stop slapping people for not doing things exactly like you want them doing. There are multiple ways to be a good citizen. Forcing people into doing things to prove themselves will only do harm. Sitting or standing, national anthem is just a symbol. If you really respect your country, show some real respect for the democracy.

Related read: The National Anthem and the Supreme Court’s Popcorn Nationalism


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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

My Obsession with Free Knowledge

I have a peculiar attachment with free knowledge - the concept that knowledge should be free of conditions and unencumbered by geographical, economic, cultural, and any other avoidable barriers. This often puts me in a position where I strangely reject certain well meant advices simultaneously appearing stupid and arrogant to others.

For example, a good friend and fellow citizen once suggested to me that I join Landmark Forum, a 3 day course that helps people understand their hidden biases and become more productive people. I listened to their forum leader speaking about how the course works and the psychology behind it and I was sure it would be a fantastic idea. But, when it came to registering for the course and participate, something prevented me from doing it.

The other day I asked a pharmacologist friend if she knew any prophylactic treatment for syphilis. She went to UpToDate (or I'm not sure if it was some other similar service) and started looking up the information. I was curious what she was using and whether I could have it in my phone too. She said it would need a subscription, but she was willing to share her username and password with me. I said that I didn't want access to it.

Yesterday a close friend suggested Dr Thameem Saif's lecture series on basic concepts in medicine for me. She said that it was really good and helps to grasp basic concepts really fast, saving a lot of time. I agreed with her on all that and said I wouldn't attend the lecture series.

Additionally, I hate the concepts of entrance coaching, tuition, etc.

The pattern I see emerging is that I have constant disregard for knowledge that is held behind restrictions, especially if tied with a business. I don't consider making a business out of knowledge evil. But I hold a pet peeve against using that kind of knowledge for my personal benefit.

To understand this attitude, you need to look at the other things that I value and principles that I care for.

Free software

Free as in free speech, not free coffee. Here is an interesting paragraph from gnu.org about free software:
The idea of the Free Software Movement is that computer users deserve the freedom to form a community. You should have the freedom to help yourself, by changing the source code to do whatever you need to do. And the freedom to help your neighbor, by redistributing copies of programs to other people. Also the freedom to help build your community, by publishing improved versions so that other people can use them.
I have been an ardent user and advocate of free software for the past 8 or so years. The idea that there is collective ownership of software and people being able to make and share improvements on the software with each other thus creating a better product for everyone is addictive. So much that once you subscribe to this philosophy you feel grudge and guilt if you were to use or be forced to use non-free software for any task.

I can still use Microsoft Word on my parents' computer running Microsoft Windows to type a letter. But it simply won't feel right.

Open Web

The Open Web is that part of the world wide web which is open for anyone to use, create, and innovate in irrespective of their location, race, gender, economic status, etc. according to me.

Internet has enabled human dreams far quicker than any other invention. Internet is a great equalizing force. Internet has elevated human life to a higher level. And Open Web is the most important pillar of this success.

With the Open Web, it is far more easy and quick for people anywhere on earth to share and receive knowledge. Collaboration is cakewalk. Building upon each other's ideas becomes rule rather than exception. Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel worked on two critical pieces of the theory of evolution at around the same time. But they never knew about each other's work. Won't ever happen in the internet age.

When I see internet services that are "app-only" or requires sign in for viewing, I wince. They are justified in trying to retain users. But it simply won't feel right for me to use such a service.

Open Access

With internet, the cost of publishing came to almost zero. And so one would think that science literature would become cheaper and cheaper to access. But the opposite is the truth. Scholars expend their lives trying to expand the horizons of science and publishing industry locks down their contributions to select few who are willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money to access this.

People who fight these are killed. But their spirit cannot be killed. Open Access movement is gaining large amount of followers. When enough academicians hold fast to the promise that they won't publish in money-thirsty journals, there will be a tilt in the way scientific literature is published.

Science needs to be set free. And open access to scientific articles is crucial here.

I've not published anything yet. But when I do, it will be open access. And I keep asking the people I have any influence over, to keep their contributions to the knowledge base that humans have built to be open access.

Free Knowledge

It is in this backdrop that free knowledge enters.

Organizations like Wikimedia, Creative Commons, and even YouTube have done a lot to advance free knowledge. "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

If you have been reading carefully till now, you know that free culture is my culture. And free knowledge is an inalienable part of free culture.

From as early as 11th standard, I have been using the internet and all the wonderful resources in it to learn. I fell in love with MIT's OpenCourseWare. When NCERT textbooks weren't enough I would run to OERs like CK-12.

But when I joined MBBS I faced the greatest challenge ever. To date I have not been able to find any good collaborative (or not) open textbook online for medicine or any subject that medical education includes. There have been very good attempts like Ophtho book, Path Bites, Radiopaedia.org, etc. But the information is usually so scattered that it is very difficult to get a comprehensive understanding of the subjects.

In this scenario, I was forced to resort to traditional textbooks. I made it a point not to purchase expensive textbooks. I've scraped all the corners of the internet to find out useful PDF files.

And at the same time I made a pledge to myself that I will leave the condition a bit better by organizing the information that I find and making it possible for a future student to click on links and get access to various information as required. That is why learnlearn.in was born.

Now that I have finished MBBS I no longer am under duress to stick to textbooks to avoid prolonged stay at a not-so-nice place. But, in the spirit of pirate philosophy, I continue to access resources that are required even when they're not free knowledge. But I have set a personal restriction that I will not be using resources that aren't obtainable from the internet.

By doing this I am expecting to create a path which can be followed by others. I want success, but I want only reproducible success. I don't want to be successful because I had access to a particular resource by virtue of my geographical, economic, cultural, or any other privileged position.

So what about things I learn at VMH? Well, my plan here is to put everything that I learn here online. Also, a point to note is that at VMH there's no package of knowledge that is sold. It's all experiential learning that occurs here. And people are welcome to work and learn from here.

Can't you do the same with Forum, UpToDate, and Dr Thameem? Well, not impossible. But, like I said earlier about using Windows as a free software advocate, it just doesn't feel right.

But more importantly, by striving to learn exclusively from free knowledge resources, I create a demand for free knowledge thereby encouraging creators to produce more content in free domain and also allowing people who come after me to have a road that's been taken before them.

Let's build a society where knowledge is free.


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Friday, June 16, 2017

Why I Write

Subtracting the dates, I have been blogging for more than 9 years as of now. That is not a big number considering how blogging was mainstream years before I began. Neither have I written a lot by quantity.

But I have been writing. I do not remember if I had any specific idea in mind on what to write about when I began. I was pretty new to the internet when I began. And I thought everyone who used internet maintained a blog for their personal ruminations.

I always had things to write about. Be it my take on things happening in the world, be it something new that I learned that day, be it a travelogue, be it a simple new thought. There has been times I was so engrossed in life outside that I have forgotten to write. Or times when I was too tired that I could not write. But never have I not written because I didn't have anything to write about.

For a long time, I did not care about the audience. My writings were mostly for myself and addressed at random strangers on the internet. I did not worry about who would be or would not be reading my posts. I was never concerned about the relevance of my posts. Because it was always relevant to me.
Not much has changed. I now regularly post updates from me on Telegram and WhatsApp (check the sidebar on details how to join) but I am not worried about people not reading what I write. Because even today, I write for myself.

I consider blogging to be documentation of one's mind. In addition, I think writing helps clarify ideas for oneself. That clarity of mind is very important for me.

A simple image I drew in Krita because without illustrations, people tend to get bored with long blog posts.
I have been inspired by others writing. My favourite blogs had been zen habits, Scott H. Young, Study Hacks, BetterExplained, LifeHacker, Dumb Little Man, PluginID, etc. After my dad and My Experiments With Truth, I think these blogs have exerted the most influence on shaping what I am today.

Unlike books, a blog keeps coming back at you. You read a book, you are deeply affected by it, and sometimes it stays with you throughout your life. But you start following a blog, the author keeps coming back to you with their ideas and influences forever (till you stop following). For those who read, what they read shapes them.

And I read. I have read on the internet much more than I have read books. This could be bad. Because to write a book needs much more deliberation and therefore books by definition have more concrete ideas. But that is also a good point for blogs. Blogs are direct unfiltered thoughts from a person's mind. They do not go through the censorship of acceptability or merchantability.

And therefore multitudes of raw, sometimes radical, nevertheless vibrant and different ideas have entered my mind and some have stayed back.

It is in the same spirit that I write. What use is a thought if it has not been shared? I may be redundant and be writing what others have already written about. But the collection of thoughts that I represent in my writings is unique.

That's the truth. I write to influence. Thoughts that aren't expressed simply do not exist. If you care for something, you need to show that you care. And writing is my way of doing it.


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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Rekindling Ambitions

On the eve of independence day in 2013, I wrote this post which was about keeping ourselves safe from getting involved in situations where doing good might be bad. I grew more and more pessimistic about life and people around me since then. Going through the comments section of any news item would put me in a state of teeth clenching aversion towards fellow country men.

I was not like this. I was patriotic. I called myself ASD of India. I believed in people like Dr APJ Abdul Kalam when they said that it's possible to do anything if we have a desire strong enough. Swami Vivekananda's words "Arise, awake, and stop not till the goal is reached!" would make me determined to succeed.

My schools were the best. They never taught me the meaning of impossible. Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed interesting. Everyone was involved with the same spirit.

But college was something entirely different. Suddenly, I was exposed to the bad, and sad sides of humanity. Not just in the immediate surrounding. Newspapers suddenly became sources of bad news. In fact, I quit reading newspapers entirely. They were becoming too negative for me. Or was it that I was too weak to face the reality? Maybe. But I could imagine alternate realities (or fantasies) in which people are far less corrupt and far more content. I could imagine spirited colleagues. I could imagine living in a better society.

For some reason, I assumed that those were just fantasies. I grew too pessimistic. I assumed that honesty will never win and that as time goes on, things will get only worse. I figured that we were doomed. I knew that there was no future for humanity.

This negativity has contributed more than a little to my decision not to run behind a post graduate seat. I had already grown sick of the education system much before I grew sick of the entire system. I was not going to spend any more time in that toxic environment that's called "college". Any college.

I was clueless on what to do when I joined Vivekananda Memorial Hospital. It took me more than a month, but now I'm finally beginning to understand.

Yesterday, there was an orientation session here. VMH is run by Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement. The CEO of SVYM, Dr MA Balasubramanya gave a speech in the orientation session. He ran through the history of the organization. The values of SVYM is "Satya, Ahimsa, Seva, and Tyaga". SVYM does an incredible amount of good work in Karnataka. And it started from two batches of students of MMC. It has taken 32 years for this organization to become what it is right now. And it hasn't paid a single rupee in bribe to reach where it is.

The most important thing that he spoke yesterday and that hit me hard was that it was indeed possible for honest people to survive. That it was indeed possible to do good things. That good people do, in fact, exist.

I have a theory of love. When you fall in love with a person the first time, there is a component of infatuation. Once you grow beyond that, you start to see imperfections in your partner and stop loving them as much. But there is a certain moment in the relationship where you fall in love with the same person again. The difference is that this time, you know all the positives and negatives of your partner and you are loving the whole person. This newfound love is unbreakable. Because you have accepted all the bads of your partner, there is nothing new that can change your love.

I think I should now apply the same theory to ambitions. Initially we go through the rosy feeling of the entire world being full of possibilities and unlimited potentials. Then there is a rough patch in which you grow tired and weary, and forced to give up. It was only when I had given up and threw my hands in despair that I got help.

If I had ever been able to believe in mythical spirituality, I'd have called it Swami Vivekananda's infinite power. Otherwise, what can explain the coincidence of my first love of the world be propelled by Swami Vivekananda's books and now, my rekindled love of the world be propelled by an organization that lives by his name and values?

Positive thoughts come to you when you are surrounded by positive people. Fortunately, I've come to such a place. Now is the time to ride the wave. Expect more.


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Friday, October 14, 2016

Why would Kashmir want to stay with India when they don’t even get access to internet like the rest of Indians?

India is brutally restricting access to internet in Kashmir. And like marital rape, suppressing a citizen’s basic rights this way is legal in India.

There are complex geopolitical issues in Kashmir. But, what wrong did internet in Kashmir do to be treated like trade with an enemy state?

There is a class of Indians who conflates the cloud with clouds in the sky and internet with Pandora’s box. They know internet only as a replacement for their porn CDs and a medium for terrorists to coordinate their strikes. It is probably the same people who banned internet in Kashmir and keep it that way.

Internet is a wormhole in your basement which lets you explore and experience places and cultures that you can never otherwise in your life. Internet is full of opportunities that are limited only by one’s imagination. Internet gives answers that you can find nowhere else. Internet can teach you anything from cooking to neuroscience.

Internet is a great equalizer. It empowers the disempowered. It does not care whether you are rich or urban middle class, Muslim or atheist, gay or bi, left-winged or religious fanatic, above 18 or just lying to be; you are what you say you are. And when Twitter is down, it is down for everyone.

Also, internet is so huge and powerful that knowing how to wield it is a skill (called “web literacy”) in itself. There are problem areas inside internet that one needs to be aware and careful of. One needs to learn a great deal while using internet to be using it effectively. Internet is not for the ones who give up easily.

Perhaps, India has a huge bunch of web illiterates. Perhaps, that is why they think blocking internet in Kashmir can be of any good. For, little do they realize the value of the greatest innovation of mankind (after the wheel, of course) that they so comfortably withhold from Kashmir.


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Monday, July 4, 2016

Haridwar

This notorious place. Do anything you want, but never eat a thing from here. They are probably taking all their water from the E-coli filled dirty sacred holy river Ganga. We had no plan to eat at the bank of the river, but it rained and we got trapped near a place and we ate some and the story turns worse.
But before that, we had some nice time walking by the side of the river. We had reached the Haridwar railway station by afternoon. And the Russian would leave for Delhi in the 18:15 Shatabdi Express. He was particular that he goes in an air conditioned train because of what had happened on our journey from Delhi to Dehradun. All of us had something to cover ourselves with, except him. We were in sleeper compartment. He went to his berth like a Russian and we assumed Russians were resistant to cold. Turns out they aren't. They just have excellent warming systems in their place. So, the outside temperatures might go below zero, but inside the homes are warm. And in the morning all of us had woken up from a good night's sleep except him. So he couldn't miss this AC train to Delhi.

But we still had some time to pass before the train would arrive. There were so many police officers deployed in the railway station. Turns out it was indeed a special occasion and we would have cursed ourselves if we had reached there a day later. It was going to be an 'ardh kumbh mela' next day. Means a lot of devotees running to the river. Anyhow, we walked perpendicularly towards the river.

The banks were surprisingly calm. There were a few devotee groups sitting here and there. People dressed like Lord Shiva kept walking by us. The river was mighty, filled to the brim. We walked more than a kilometer like that and took enough photos on the way. After all, the river is a river.

Panorama

We were walking towards a huge Shiva statue. But it was too far for us to walk to and it appeared to be on an island all by itself. Instead we decided to go to this part of the river where they would float lamps on. We were there, but it wasn't time yet for the devotees to come in masses with the lamps. So we decided to check out the shops on the parallel road. This is where it rained and we got charmed into eating thalis and kesari from a dhaba.

When the rain subsided, it was time for the Russian to leave. We dropped him back at the station waving him goodbye. On the way to the station we had nice warm tea at another shop too. And then we came back to the place where the lamps would float.

The lamps had started floating. There was a small mandir on the bank where people would fetch these from. There also was a monkey on its roof trying to steal the bananas offered to the God there being rattled away by the priest. Then there was this set of people standing in the river with water up till their knees. They would use a piece of glass (or transparent plastic?) to look through the surface of the river on to the bottom and pick something from the bottom using their long magnetic stick. Turns out, coins. Look, pick, transfer. Repeat.

We observed them and the floating lamps for a while and then walked around the city. There was a Chinese corner where we had noodles and soup. Night had fallen and that would be our dinner. We then walked to the riverbank again. There were cold seats to sit on. We sat with the breeze hitting us hard and the mighty river tempting me to jump into and die.

After a while, we went back to the railway station. They had a waiting room upstairs. Filled with people though. We spread a newspaper and sat outside. Our train was coming only after midnight. I slowly drifted into sleep.


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Mussoorie

We reached Mussoorie around 4 o'clock. Although we saw the youth hostel on the way we weren't sure if they provided accommodation and it was a bit far from all the places we wanted to trek to. At the bus stand an agent approached us asking if we wanted rooms and then led us to a nearby hotel where we got a large room where the 4 of us could stay. The Russian asked if a room warmer was available. It was, at ₹200 extra. We went for it and that decision was a lifesaver as you will soon come to know.

By then the Sun was going to go down and we didn't want to waste that day by not going anywhere. I calculated the distance to various places we could go to and settled on going to Everest house. The distance could be covered on foot in about an hour said Google Maps. But that hour easily stretched into two. I'll write about how GPS-enabled/dependent our treks were in a later post.

We did get lost once and reached a high-security hotel with dogs that would look like they could rip you apart. But we retraced, walked, and stomped our way forward. At about 800m to Sir George Everest House you reach this cafe called Seagreen. It was really dark by then and so we decided to go to the Everest House first and then go to the cafe on return even though we were really hungry and hadn't had any food (I had promised my travel mates that there were so many restaurants on the way where we could eat from, but turns out the map is different from reality). Here, two dogs joined us on the upward climb.

The climb is steep but there is a clear unpaved path upwards and although it was dark we had enough moonlight to see our way. The dogs - we named them Schwanan (Malayalam for dog) and Hillary. We were so late that the tiny shops on the sides which would sell soft drinks and noodles were closing down one by one. It was still wonderful how there were people running such shops everywhere. Schwanan was leading the way at times and at other times slowing down to catch up with Hillary who was trailing. But I realized that day that these were probably the descendants of those very same dogs which gave Sir George Everest company when he climbed that hill to set up his house on top.

And then we reached the house, quite literally at the top of the hill and at the edge of the land. But to call it a house would be a mistake because all that remained were a few walls which have now been written over with names of couples inside huge ❤ symbols.

And then there was a surprise. There was light! There were the Himalayan mountains far away glistening in red, orange, and all the colours of the setting Sun. The horizon was a rainbow between the starlit dark sky and the snowy white mountains. We were the only people there, the last trekkers of the day. The 4 of us and Schwanan. Hillary had gone away somewhere else.

We spent only about 15 minutes on the top because we were hungry, it was getting cold, it was getting darker, and we had taken enough panoramas and selfies and timer shots. On the way back, we had to intermittently shine a fridge market torch one of us had to make sure there were no snakes or holes. And we did stop here and there to look at the stars and make out random constellations that didn't even exist.

As we had decided we took a break at Seagreen Cafe where we had a large pizza and hot coffee. More importantly they had a room warmer which worked on coal maybe and we took a lot of warmth from it. Working on his tablet was a fellow traveller who was spending some time in North India before flying to Scotland to meet his girlfriend. We waved him goodbye and walked back, trying and failing to hitchhike. On the long way back which felt shorter, the 3 of us who were Malayalis sang some of our boat racing songs to keep us going faster. When we got tired, the Russian taught us his marching songs too. We reached our rooms and slept peacefully with the warmer first on, and then off.

This is where warmth comes from
For next day, I had decided that we would trek to a "Tibetan Buddhist Temple" which looked good in photos on Google Maps. We woke up early, had breakfast and started walking. We weren't even a kilometer down when it started to drizzle slightly. We walked on till the rain got heavier and we had to find shelter in a building on the roadside. As we stood there we tried to find a hike to the temple but unfortunately it was too early in the morning and there were no vehicles going that side. The rain gave in slightly and we continued to walk. checking off landmarks to make sure we were on the right path. But then, all of a sudden there was heavy downpour and our woollen clothes were absorbing all the water like a camel at an oasis. We tried taking cover again, but by then we were so wet and so close to the temple on the map that we decided to brave the rain.

There was ice on the road. It was a hailstorm. There was water everywhere. Our shoes were wet despite our best attempts to not step on water. And the hail was hitting us hard too. Anyhow we reached the Buddhist temple. Like the rain wasn't enough, the temple was closed that morning. We could not go inside, but we could take photos from outside and see the valley. As I was trying to take a picture of the temple, I realized to my horror that my fingers were getting so cold that I could not bend them to click. It was the case with everyone. We were going to die probably while still searching for an open cafe to buy some warmth.
This was everywhere!
But there was a saviour. The language teacher of a Tibetan school there was going to Chandigarh in his car. And after removing all the hailstones from his car's windshield he was willing to drop us back to the city. We jumped in and he turned the AC on to full heat, dropped us near our hotel, and we ran to our rooms after thanking him and wishing him a happy journey. When we reached room we were drenched and shivering. The only warm thing in the room was the warmer and we sat around it warming our clothes and body in turns. The wet socks were fuming. Shoes definitely had to be dried. The room service brought cups of tea and we had bought some bananas on the way. After about an hour we were dry enough to pack up and leave.

We had brunch at a nice warm restaurant just above the bus stand. It was still raining. The Mussoorie Library were Ruskin Bond is known to frequent was right next to us but we were in no mood for reading. The buses to Dehradun are the same buses that come from Dehradun. We waited for about half an hour and got our seats back to Dehradun.

As soon as we reached the bus stand I realized there was a train about to leave from the station - the Dehradun Allahabad Link Express. We ran to the station and made sure the train hadn't left and then ran to the ticket counter which is outside the platform and took tickets and ran back to the train and got in to the general compartment and the train started, all within a span of ten minutes. The compartment was full and the Russian got the taste of general compartment journey and we alighted at Haridwar.


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