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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