Monday, March 22, 2021

Organizations, Like People, Have Values

I stole the title from Peter Drucker's Harvard Business Review article titled "Managing Oneself" [pdf]. It has been 4 years since I graduated medical school and in that many years, having worked with (and escaped having to work with) organizations of different kinds, I have come to the same conclusion.

Organizations have values. These values can be determined by observing the way the organizations work. Whether or not you will feel happy working with an organization is determined by whether your values are compatible with the value system of that organization.

The values of an organization exist independently of the values of people in its leadership. The leaders have a great role in determining the values of an organization. But often leaders are distracted by a "pragmatic" approach that usually follows money in an increasingly capitalistic world. And this makes them make compromises without even realizing what they're giving up.

And you can't blame them. Organizations, by definition, have the motivation to grow. Growth is easier to achieve if an organization focuses on either money or power. Because they have a top-down nature, it is easier to wield money and/or power to direct growth. There might also be an argument that a top-down approach like that will lead to larger and faster results too.

This also leads to a particular set of values. Even if the leaders of an organization have a different set of values in their personal life, their choice to focus on money/power will lead their organization to have a value system in which retaining and increasing money/power will be a core priority. That influences the kind of values that can thrive in those organizations.

On the other hand, choosing to focus on things like "people" will lead to organizations being structured in very different ways, especially with regard to decision making. Such bottom-up structure fosters different values altogether.

When I say bottom-up, I am not talking about a "top-down disguised as bottom-up" management structure. In fact, the right way to run any organization is that top-down, yet bottom-up way as explained in this article: "How to Design a Self-Managed Organization". But eventually such an organization is still one where there is a leader who ultimately is in charge (even though they rarely use that control in day-to-day activities of the organization). I am not talking about that bottom-up style.

I am talking about a truly bottom-up style where there are no leaders at all. This is akin to participatory research. 

"Participatory research comprises a range of methodological approaches and techniques, all with the objective of handing power from the researcher to research participants, who are often community members or community-based organisations. In participatory research, participants have control over the research agenda, the process and actions. Most importantly, people themselves are the ones who analyse and reflect on the information generated, in order to obtain the findings and conclusions of the research process. " ~ source

What would organizations look like if they embraced the participatory approach? What would the role of a leader be in such an organization?

The P2P foundation wiki has lots to speak about it. On the same, I found a link to The Three Ways of Getting Things Done by Gerard Fairtlough. This book provides two alternatives to hierarchy - heterarchy and responsible autonomy. 

"If hierarchy is the power system of centralized systems, then heterarchical power is the power system of decentralized systems and Responsible Autonomy is the power system of distributed systems."

Similar thoughts about adaptive leadership is mentioned in Complexity Leadership Theory (H/T: Dr Ramakrishna Prasad).

The question of money or "business model" also has a big role in deciding the values of an organization. Organizations who raise money before work is done tend to have made promises which decide how the work is done. The nature of these promises decides the value of these organizations.

Sometimes, such commitments can make an organization take up values that are antithetical to their own mission. Especially when it comes to free software, or free knowledge, having financial commitments lead to organizations wanting to make money out of software and knowledge - which is arguably easier if you restrict freedoms.

An organization with the wrong structure cannot have the right values. And if you find yourself in a situation where the people in an organization wants to have the right values but aren't radically restructuring the organization, then run away as fast and far as possible.

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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Don't Cook Your Meals

Thanks to The Great Indian Kitchen a lot of discussions are happening on cooking. I wanted to note down a few of my thoughts in relation to cooking, etc.

I find cooking boring

There might be people who find cooking interesting. I am not one of those persons. I find food boring too. Anything healthy and tasty is good food for me. Probably that's why I find cooking boring. Because cooking is about food.

Cooking regularly for oneself is a massive waste of time, money, and energy

This is especially true for people who have other engaging work to do - people like programmers, teachers, etc. Cooking regularly takes away a large amount of time from your daily life which you could have spent on reading, learning, etc.

In the video above (in Malayalam), around 15 minutes, Maithreyan also tells something to this effect. On the economics of cooking.

Mass production of cheap and healthy food should be a reality

In VMH, I used to eat from the canteen three times a day. I was never starving and even though I missed chicken and beef, I was eating okay. I lost the 4 kgs I gained during internship eating Biriyanis all day. But once I moved to Bangalore, I couldn't find a replacement for this canteen.

Zomato/Swiggy etc are a problem because of two reasons

1) The amount of plastic.
2) The cost because someone has to burn petrol and drive a motorcycle all the way from the restaurant.

The hotels were all catering to the occasional outside diner and would cook expensive and often unhealthy dishes.

Hiring the service of a maid is good for many reasons

For a long time I used to feel icky about hiring the service of a maid. Perhaps I didn't think a lot about it. I used to feel that it is wrong to rely on someone else for one's basic needs like food, cleaning house, etc.

But during COVID when people were all losing jobs and we were literally asked by someone at the local bajji shop whether we needed house help, Swathi and I decided it is time we hire someone's service.

And then I figured out how by redistributing money through such hiring is actually good for everyone. It frees my time and mind. It gives someone who would otherwise be unemployed a chance to do work.

Cooking can do with a lot of innovation

Here's a recent talk I enjoyed watching.

It talks about how bras have remained the same for over a century. Perhaps cooking is like that. At least home based cooking. Nobody has thought about revolutionizing cooking. Sure there are innovations like mixers, grinders, and my all time favorite - rice cookers. (Fun fact, did you know the rice cooker works by the principle that water when still boiling cannot exceed temperature of 100°C? The thermostat of a rice cooker cuts power off when the temperature exceeds that because by then there wouldn't be any water left as liquid).

But we haven't redefined cooking the way cloud computing has redefined servers or the way ebooks have replaced libraries. Maybe some day we will find food pills and that will be it.

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Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Great Indian Kitchen - A Great Movie About the Not So Great Indian Kitchen

If you know Malayalam, you are better off reading Joshina Ramakrishnan's review which captures the whole essence of the movie and places it smack in the middle of the collective conscience of Malayalis.

The first thing that appears on the screen after CBFC certificate is not a 2D Ganesha idol. It is the words "THANKS SCIENCE". What follows is 100 minutes of silently violent, nauseating, sensitive, beautiful modern cinema.


There are a million things said without saying and to spoil them in a review would be a disservice to the movie. I suggest that you head over to neestream and get a week's pack to watch this movie ASAP. English subtitles by 1" barrier will help non-Malayalis catch the subtle dynamics between characters. 

But to appreciate the brilliance of this movie you don't need to know Malayalam, because many important dialogues in this movie are the sounds made by the kitchen in response to the woman who is forced to converse with it against her wish.

But don't for a moment be under the impression that The Great Indian Kitchen is about the kitchen. It is also about the bedroom. And the rest of the house. And the entirety of the society.

The characters in this movie are all of us. The movie is thus a mirror. What we see in it is what we should see in ourselves. But who has ever looked in a mirror and decided to change their life?

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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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