Wednesday, December 23, 2020

What to Do with Privilege?

 I have had the privilege to think and write about privilege often. I have written about how privilege affects Indian software industry's ability to innovate. I have written about why the privileged should think about how they're part of the problem. I have looked at my privileges visible to me. I also felt guilty/responsbile and came up with a probably stupid idea of distributing my time to help others.

Today morning I came across two interesting tweets.

The next tweet requires a bit of context. New York Times had published a very interesting story about pollution in Delhi by following two kids from different backgrounds and measuring their pollution exposure. You should absolutely read the story (the reality) if you haven't.

This made me think about the book by Michael Sandel that I recently finished reading - The Tyranny of Merit. It is a book about privilege, inequities, affirmative action, and the idea of justice. 

The book starts with examination of a US college admission corruption scandal. A few rich parents had paid some people to get their kids fake certificates that would make it easier to get college admission. This was seen as highly unfair and corrupt.

But being born with privilege automatically gives people an edge. I didn't have to fake any certificate, but I grew up in an environment where I could "earn" those certificates. Conversely, people who have lesser privileges start with a disadvantage.

Affirmative action steps in there. The idea with affirmative action is to give those who didn't have the background a chance to succeed. Reserved seats (or diversity quotas) "level" the playing ground.

But affirmative action comes with lots of problems. See the replies on this tweet, for example.

Affirmative action makes those who do not benefit from affirmative action feel lots of resentment towards those who do benefit from it, especially if the former view themselves as disadvantaged in a way that is not considered as a disadvantage in the affirmative action program. For example, in this case, male candidates from rural/poor background feel that Google hiring female candidates exclusively is unfair.

Michael Sandel then questions the very idea of merit. Is it possible to have an Utopia where everyone has equal privileges? Imagine a heavy autocracy where everyone is born in the same conditions. What happens when different human beings are born with different cognitive/physical capacities? Isn't being born with better genes a privilege? Is it okay for people to use that privilege to get ahead of others?

Affirmative action is an attempt at ensuring equality of opportunity. But no matter how hard we try there are certain opportunities which everyone cannot equally have. At the same time there is a large amount of wealth inequalities that arise. And also a lot of inequalities in terms of esteem. Those who are privileged feel guilty of their success. Those who benefit from affirmative action are shamed that they couldn't "qualify" without the same.

I have thought in the past specifically about college admissions. What if everyone could access high quality of education and nobody had to miss out on the opportunity? Then we wouldn't need reservation and selection. But, we have created an artificial scarcity of seats. Why do we give universities the monopoly over knowledge like that? Why do we have professions like programming which anyone can enter and then professions like law which people are barred from entering?

It might be my pet peeve that there are regulated professions. But Michael Sandel also calls for dismantling meritocracy and ensuring equality of condition. The book, like the Justice course, makes you think and rethink the idea of justice.

Coming back to the tweets above. I think that looking at privilege as a shameful thing is useful for nobody. Giving up privileges is a waste of privilege. The right use of privilege, in my opinion, would be to use it for reducing inequities in the world. The rich family that agreed to be part of the NY Times article therefore need to be applauded. And those with privilege need to acknowledge their privileges and work towards making those privileges irrelevant.

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Thursday, December 10, 2020

Annihilation of Caste

Jat-Pat Todak Mandal probably wanted to be the #DalitLivesMatter of their time. That's how they invited Ambedkar to their annual conference in 1936 to deliver a speech. Organization of conferences in that time and today have at least one thing in common - communication gaps. JPTM wanted Ambedkar to talk about abolition of caste. Like many social reformers, they wanted reforms that do not disturb the status quo. Ambedkar's speech pointed out how caste is strongly intertwined with Hinduism. If one were to agree with Ambedkar, abolishing caste would require shaking the fundamentals of Hinduism. JPTM did not let Ambedkar know that they would rather not speak logic to the Hindu elite who attend their conference. At least, not when they sent the invitation.

When the organizers saw the print of the speech to be delivered they straightened the record. Either Ambedkar can stay clear of criticizing Hinduism or they will find a way to cancel the speech. Ambedkar had by then printed a few hundred copies of the speech and was neither interested in changing the text nor in speaking at JPTM's conference. The speech, thence, became the book. Annihilation of Caste.


*  *  *


Reading this book drastically changed the way I look at Indian independence movement and contemporary Indian politics. Very little of that was brought about by the content of Ambedkar's speech. The speech is a rather predictable compilation of reasons why Hinduism flares up casteism. It is well written and logical. The points Ambedkar put forward can be directly used in debates even today. The politics around the book, though, is eye-opening.

It is the same politics that made this book slip under my radar. It is why I have never asked the questions "Did Ambedkar really draft the Constitution?" or "What else did Ambedkar write?". It is the politics of caste.

Having grown up as an Indian elite, I did not (and do not) know well the politics of caste. To compensate for this elite ignorance, the book is now prefixed by Arundhati Roy's essay "The Doctor and the Saint". This essay is the red pill. If you take it you go down the rabbit hole of Indian politics.

After that it won't really matter whether you read the speech or not. Yet you will read it. Like you reached an oasis in a large desert you were thrown abruptly into.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2020

How Can I Be Useful For You?

I've been thinking about this for a long time. I haven't still figured out how to execute this. But here's the idea. I'm very privileged, purely by the accident of birth. There are millions of people less privileged than me in many ways. I think the right use of my privileges would be to help bridge the inequities in our society. And for that, I have to start somewhere. I'm doing various things, but I think I'm not doing all I can.

Here's the deal. I'll list down a list of things that I think I can effectively help others in. I'll also list down many of my privileges here. If you aren't as privileged as I am in any one of these, you can feel free to reach out to me on any topic on the first list, and we can work out a way for you to take my time for your own benefit/growth/advantage.

List of things I can work with you on

  1. Learning medicine, learning basic sciences.
  2. Learning programming, learning GNU/Linux system administration.
  3. Learning to use the internet.
  4. Contributing to free software projects.
  5. Writing essays/articles in English, learning English
  6. Conceptualizing research studies in health, academic writing, and publication.
  7. Public speech.

I'm going to be a bit selfish and not list down everything that I can actually do for others. I'm sorry for that. But if you think there's something related to the above but not exactly in the list, we can talk about it.

List of my privileges you can use to compare

By listing something down here, I don't mean to imply that one is better than the other in any way. I just feel certain things have made things easier for me in my life, and I've listed those as privileges.

  1. Being male
  2. Being cisgender
  3. Being heterosexual
  4. Being born in a privileged caste
  5. Being born in an economically stable family
  6. Having my parents alive well into my adulthood
  7. Having young parents
  8. Being born to a doctor
  9. Being born to a teacher
  10. Being born to parents who are in government service
  11. Not having to support family
  12. Being the grandchild of three teachers
  13. Being born in a majority religion
  14. Having access to books from early childhood
  15. Having access to internet by 8th standard
  16. Having been to an English medium school
  17. Not having suffered psychological or physical trauma in childhood
  18. Not having physical disabilities
  19. Being tall
  20. Being fair skinned
  21. Having a lean body-nature
  22. Not having congenital or acquired illnesses that require medical care

This is by no means a complete list. I haven't added all the privileges that I accrued thanks to the above privileges. So have I not added the privileges that I am not aware of. Anyhow, if you think I am more privileged than you in any way, you should not hesitate to take this deal.

You can find my contact details here.


 Post script: I have thought about how this can be considered virtue signalling. I am open to discuss ways of making this less about me and more about others. I've considered the idea of volunteering at NGOs. But I haven't found a right fit at the moment. Neither is it feasible at the moment due to COVID. Also, I want to somehow be able to scale this idea and figuring out first hand what works and what doesn't might be useful in that.

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Why Wikipedia Is Evil

Don't get me wrong. I'm a fan of many things about Wikipedia. I have a small number of edits on Wikipedia too. But, I think democratizing knowledge creation is more important than Wikipedia. And that's why the title.

I have written with examples about how Wikipedia's claims about it being "the sum of all human knowledge" is highly misplaced in my old article titled: "Don't put all your eggs in one Wikipedia". In that article I also talk about how Wikipedia could become the foundation for building a federated knowledge system. In this post I talk about why it is necessary to decentralize Wikipedia.

Monopolies are bad

It is not that there cannot be socially conscious and good natured monopolies. It is that the existence of monopolies in a society is bad. It stifles innovation by restricting it to only the monopoly. It gives great power to the people who control the monopoly. Arbitrary rules can be created by these people and everyone else is forced to follow suit.

Healthy competition is the cornerstone of capitalism. Monopolies make competition tough. Worse, monopolies make competitors look bad even when they're better. Monopolies make it look like the reason for the failure of competitors is incompetence whereas a large part of the reason could be the existence of a monopoly.

Amazon, Uber, China, there are many examples.

Monopolies don't announce themselves

That monopolies are bad is clear to many people. But recognizing monopolies is sometimes hard. A monopoly doesn't always start out as a monopoly. And there usually isn't an announcement when someone becomes a monopoly. In fact, monopolies always deny they have monopoly.

Here is where Wikipedia becomes interesting.

Wikipedia announces itself as wanting to compile the sum of all human knowledge (and sometimes even claims to be the sum of all human knowledge). I have ranted enough about this in the older post. But the fact that not enough people question this statement by Wikipedia founders and others should make us think: Have we accepted Wikipedia as the sum of all human knowledge?

If we have, then we have laid the foundation for Wikipedia to become a monopoly. A monopoly over knowledge.

We may be too late to act too.

Wikipedia has prominent ranking on search results for many many terms. Often, people read only the Wikipedia result. These people linking back to Wikipedia creates a reinforcing feedback loop. (Of course, the role of Google's monopoly over search and discovery of knowledge is also to be questioned).

Because there is so much of knowledge already present in Wikipedia, many people think that what is not present on Wikipedia is not notable enough or is not important enough to know. Paid editing has existed on Wikipedia from a long time and the reason is that it is becoming increasingly impossible to build a brand without building it through Wikipedia also. And why is that so? Because a large number of people use Wikipedia to measure the relative relevance of knowledge. Wikipedia is becoming the trusted bank of knowledge. Wikipedia is gaining monopoly over knowledge.

Not all of this is Wikipedia's fault. There are many projects which try to become collaborative editing spots for various niche topics. Radiopaedia, for example tries to become a reference website for radiology. Yet, for many projects Wikipedia is a large competitor because it is the so-called "sum of all human knowledge". Editors would rather write on Wikipedia than a smaller collaborative project.

Because we give Wikipedia too much credit. We consider it the reference. We adore it. We are too scared to fork off. We make it a monopoly. Stop doing that.

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Sunday, July 26, 2020

Liberty vs Morality

Liberty and morality can be seen as counter-balancing forces.

Liberty applies to individuals.
Morality is a social construct.

Liberty is about what one can do.
Morality is about what one cannot do.

Liberty assumes each human is a rational being and respects them for that.
Morality is enforced on humans by authority based on arbitrary consensus.

Liberty allows a human being to achieve their maximum human potential.
Morality can potentially prevent individuals from harming other individuals.

Liberty and morality are not equally acting on everyone, though.

Morality often sides with the more privileged. Because the authority to enforce morality rests with them too. In turn, liberty also accumulates with the privileged.

Privilege may never get equally distributed. We must therefore constantly renegotiate the arbitrary rules of morality for the benefit of the less privileged.

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Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Connection Between Curiosity and Knowledge

Last week, 7½ years after Aaron Swartz death, I was thinking about what made Aaron smart. There is this quote:

“Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. What people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.”

Curiosity. It keeps popping up here and there.

I was read Anand Philip's blog today. The "about" page is just three lines:


Superpower: Curiosity.

Probably not a cat

Can curiosity be a superpower?

One of the answers was about The Oxford Electric Bell:

There wasn't much detail about the bell in the answer. Intuitively I was thinking it could be something like a clock that would require winding every now and then. But I wasn't sure. So I went to the wikipedia page on it.

That's where I learned that it is an actual bell that rings about twice a second and holds "the Guinness World Record as "the world's most durable battery [delivering] ceaseless tintinnabulation""

Now there are many things to learn on this page. We might want to see the bell ringing on Youtube. We might want to read about perpetual motion. We might even want to read about the word tintinnabulation.

Which reminded me of an old friend Akashnil Dutta who according to LinkedIn is now a Member of Technical Staff at OpenAI. It was about 9 years ago in a camp that I met Akashnil where he told me about magnetotactic bacteria. I asked him how he had come across this rather uncommon piece of information.

He said he would use the "Random Article" feature of wikipedia to find new stuff.

Curiosity is a super power.

Read. Notice. Be curious. Question. Read more. Repeat.

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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Is Feminism Brahmanism?

This post is an analysis on the points made in the transcript of a talk titled "Feminism is Brahmanism" (FiB) and the counter-points raised to it. I know that it is difficult to separate points made by a person from that person themselves. It is difficult to separate generalizations and personal attacks from solid arguments. But nevertheless, I will make an attempt, for my own sake. Because I call myself a feminist and I want my flavour of feminism to be the best flavour of feminism possible.

Firstly, I have to state my own biases here. I have been pondering over the question "Is Reverse Sexism Possible?" for about an year now. I've not had a conclusive answer yet. The first time I read the FiB article I thought I had an answer. Maybe the answer will take another year to be clear. Anyhow, I believe in intersectional feminism as of now. The kind that is being talked about in Data Feminism. And I believe that gender equality is not the only thing that feminism is about or should be about.

Let's now move to the original: "Feminism is Brahmanism"

We have to realize that this is the transcript of a talk and therefore a lot of meaning may have been lost in the transcription process. Also I have no idea on the context in which this talk was given, nor have I been following the speaker to know their background.

In the beginning of the talk Anu Ramdas makes this point:

That all these women produced this vast amount of knowledge and some of it has been responsible to make my rights possible. They have all worked for it. And I should just find it and I am going to find it. But in real life that was not the story. The person who worked to make education possible for my family was my paternal grandaunt. It was my paternal grandaunt who took decisions about her children having to go to college and through her effort and clarity of thought the family begins to have education as a benchmark we need to get. She is the person that I associate, in my life, with education. But feminism is telling me it is not her, it’s all these other women. So, either my grandmother (aunt) is a feminist and her role is documented in that feminist literature or they are disconnected. This reality and the materialized feminist knowledge and my real life have no connection. That is the first part of the journey.

And later this idea is revisited

What have these feminists clarified for me to stop women from spending so much of their time searching, fetching, storing water [in most parts of the world]? Or about having safe childcare, when their occupations are not white-collared jobs. The majority of the women of the world are working in agriculture. So how does childcare look for agricultural workers and what has feminism articulated about it? In all these hundreds and hundreds of books [...]
So, my conclusion is that this is about ruling class women, 99% of which is white women’s struggle. Their struggle of becoming equal to who? Are they struggling to become equal to the black man or the Asian man? No! They are struggling to become equal to the white man. Their struggle, in one sentence, if I have to say: feminism is about the white women’s struggle to become equal to white men. While white men are the oppressors of the entire world, men and women together. Feminism demands all women to help white women win their battle to become equal to white men who oppress the rest of the world. And this is repeated in every society. Elites of that society adopt this ideology, saying we are fighting for all women but all they are doing is fighting to be equal to their class men. But all women are recruited to perform this duty. And hence I cannot see their achievements, their success as being warriors of rights for all women because the water problem has not changed. It is not even there in their orbit. Therefore, I have started to see feminism as being oppositional to all the historical struggles of marginalized people, where men and women, are engaged in. For example, anti-caste battles and struggles.
I think these paragraphs summarize the premise on which the speaker is making the assertion. The premise is that lots of feminism is just about gender equality. If we assume that is true, then I can easily draw the line from there to how feminism suppresses conversation about caste and how it allows continuation of class structures like brahmanism. (Tangential question: Why should the B of brahmanism be capital? Isn't brahmanism a concept like feminism? Won't it be a common noun then?)

Now let us take the response by Anannya G Madonna - "Ambedkarism is Feminism – A Response to ‘Feminism is Brahminism’"

The author here looks at various waves of feminism. If I read it correctly, the first wave is equated to white feminism - of equal right to vote between genders.

Then "womanists/black feminists" gets introduced and in the same vein "Dalit feminism".

They then go ahead and give various examples of Dalit feminists who have independent existence and aren't just agents of white feminists. Later, also, they justify the point that being influenced by white feminism is not a bad thing per se. That the idea of human rights in Europe will apply to India as well, even if the context changes.

Essentially, I think, the point they are making is that Indian feminism is/should be Dalit/intersectional feminism.
Another point worth mentioning is that the fourth wave feminism is predominantly run by womxn of colour and various ethnicities and sexualities where they are taking the reins into their hands.
Of course they also talk on a different point about Anu Ramdas' agenda and question their integrity. But perhaps we don't have to worry about that to answer the question whether feminism is brahmanism.

We will come back to what Indian feminism is after looking at a few twitter threads.

What we see in these is that there are two view points and one political issue.

The political issue appears to be that there is an attempt to cover-up patriarchy inside Dalit communities. I don't know much about the background of this.

But the differing view point is easy to figure out.

One side (mostly consisting of Dalit feminists) believe that their kind of feminism is what "feminism" is (or should be). And that is reasonable.

The mistake made by Anu Ramdas' side seems to be that they don't acknowledge these Dalit feminists at all. They say that all of Dalit feminism is brahmanism NGOs telling Dalits what to do.

If they had said "Dalit feminists exist, but so do Savarna feminists and the latter is same as brahmanism", I think both sides would have agreed.

The question remains though. What kinds of feminism do we see around us? Are all of these feminists subscribed to the fourth wave of feminism? How much of them don't oppose brahmanism? Perhaps there's no way to systematically measure this. But I have a sense that intersectional feminism is slowly catching up in India.

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