Saturday, May 16, 2020

Do You Think All Human Beings Are Equal?

At the end of Srimathi Gopalakrishnan's post titled "Sexism in Medicine : The Eternal Confusion and The Innocent Mistake" there is a link that goes to

*SPOILER ALERT*: Take the test, if you want to.

There are only two questions on that site which tests whether you are a feminist.

1. Do you think all human beings are equal?
2. Do you think women are human beings?

When you answer yes to both these, you are confirmed to be a feminist.

It seems like everyone would pass this test. Where are we deceiving ourselves though? Why isn't the world full of feminists when it is so easy to be one?

It is the first question. "Do you think all human beings are equal?" We tend to think that we think all human beings are equal. But are all human beings equal?

What would explain a wage gap between two people doing the same job? What would explain a wage gap between two people who spend the same number of hours on their respective jobs?

One could say that the wage differs because the output of two people doing work for the same hours is not equal. If a smart programmer codes for an hour she might produce better, readable, and maintainable code than a not-so-smart programmer does in 4 hours.

In the free market, all that matters is the market value of what one produces. If what you supply is a rare resource, you are paid more, and vice versa.

If it isn't market price, what is it that we mean when we say all human beings are equal?

Is there an "intrinsic worth" of human beings that we consider to be equal in all human beings? "When there is a pandemic, every life will count the same"? I say bull shit to that. There is a pandemic right now. The measures adopted to tackle it are grossly inconsiderate of the needs of a large number of people in our society. Even during life or death situations, "intrinsic worth" of humans is nowhere counted. What use is an equality which has no role in reality?

This is where the question "Do you think all human beings are equal?" fails to be useful.

The right question to ask is "Do you think all human beings should be equal?" That is a progressive and a transformative question. It accounts for the inequities in our society and asks us "Are you willing to make amends?"

It also paves way for a deeper discussion on the reasons for inequities. It makes us introspect on what we are willing to give up in the effort to make all human beings equal. It forces us to acknowledge privilege and to be inclusive. It makes us rethink social and political order. It makes us question what rights are and what rights should be. It makes us wonder what it means to be a human.

Do you think all human beings should be equal?

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Saturday, April 11, 2020

How Many Genders Are There In Our Languages?

I stumbled on Trans 101 website today. The videos in there are literally the best I have seen in the past few weeks.

I'm embedding the first video, but there are 6.

Head over to the Trans 101 website for the rest.

I learned a lot of things while watching the videos. Reading them all in this post would take you longer than simply watching the video. So I'm not going to write about all that.

In the second video Margot makes a point about how she felt incredibly happy when her mother introduced her to others as her "daughter". That made me think about non-binary individuals. What word would they be happy about when their parent calls them that?

What about a non-binary parent? What should their child call them?

I soon realized that there are a lot of words, especially in the context of relationships, that are very much based on the (obsolete) binary concept of gender.

A quick search revealed a Washington Post column where a parent is confused on how to introduce their child. What caught my attention is not just the answer to that question. The question also included a reference to the orientation of the child. That made me realize how very problematic our language's poverty is when it comes to gender and sexuality. When a transgender male is attracted to females, are they called homosexual or heterosexual?*

Perhaps it is better to not name anything anything and just call it all a spectrum.

Perhaps it is useful to name a few things. I don't know.

Anyhow, there is this wiki on gender neutral English that's useful. And this writing guide is helpful for bloggers like me who have in the past abused repeating names as a way to avoid pronouns.

As an aside, while looking through the wiki I also remembered how I could never find a word to describe Swathi when filling out a form. Partner? Sounds like we're directing a company. Beloved? Who writes that on a form? Significant other? Too colloquial. Our languages really need to grow with the growth of civilizations.

Coming back to the point about written forms of communication. What happens when you want to write about someone and they are gender fluid and prefers to be referred by pronouns that match how they are feeling at any moment? I hope all fluid people are cool not to care about pronouns in such scenarios.

*What does orientation actually mean? Is someone's orientation determined by what gender expression they get aroused by? Is sexuality only about arousal?

There seems to be some answers in The Genderbread Person which is a cool website. They have broken "attraction" into sexual attraction and romantic attraction. Perhaps the concept of orientation needs to be thrown away altogether?

Now, there is one more unresolved thing in my head. It is about an umbrella term for all whose gender expression or gender identity are socially complicated by their anatomical sex and the societal expectations of whom they are attracted to based on that. LGBT doesn't include everyone. Queer is derogatory for some. LGBTQIA+ is the term I am thinking of using these days. But, this wiki has some alternatives.

What is pretty clear, though, is that our spoken language has to pick up a lot of these words.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Understanding Socialism

A few days ago one of my colleagues had expressed the idea of decreasing the pay gap between the highest paid employee and the lowest paid employee in our organization. I didn't give a lot of thought to that at that moment.

Yesterday morning YouTube showed me a video of Sunil P Ilayidom in which he talks about Gandhiji. I'm embedding that one here. It is in Malayalam.

Somewhere in the middle he talks about how Gandhiji was in South Africa till his 40s and didn't know how the poorest Indians lived and then how once he returned from South Africa Gandhiji walked into the hearts of Indian farmers. He talks about how Gandhiji's political campaigns always started with the real life problems of the common person. And he talks about how Gandhiji's first Satyagraha in India - the Champaran Satyagraha - was fought with the simple demand that farmers should get compensation for their crops.

If you can understand Malayalam, Sunil Ilayidom's talks about Gandhiji (powered by YouTube recommendations) makes you sit and listen for hours and hours together.

Another point that Gandhi made which SPI reiterates is "The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed."

Yesterday evening we had our weekly ECHO session in the primary healthcare fellowship and Dr Vivek Kumar from BHS told the story of a lady who was diagnosed with Tuberculosis a second time in the last 1 year (after taking 6 months of ATT the first time). Her haemoglobin was 6.9, weight was just 35kg, and it seemed like even if she took ATT continuously forever, her body might not have enough strength to protect herself from tuberculosis. In that context he described how the average haemoglobin in men, women, children, everyone in the villages he serves in is about 8-9. For about 5 minutes I could simply not believe that this could be explained by nutritional deficiencies alone.

So I searched online and found out a paper by last years' Economics Nobel Prize winners about fortifying grains to reduce anemia. This study was done between 2002 and 2009. Which means this is a well-known problem. People live in abject poverty and there is absolutely nothing that seems to work.

Our discussion rightly turned to policy changes that maybe required to bring change. Dr Vivek mentioned Aajeevika Bureau as an organization that was working with farmers to help them secure livelihood.

We also talked about community based participatory research which is the idea that any kind of research should begin from the community, be designed and developed by the community, and be owned by the community to be ultimately useful for that community. People from outside have their limitations in understanding what works, and what doesn't. When I was making this point I was imagining Dr Vivek as an insider, and me as an outsider. But then Dr Vivek replied reaffirming the point and considering even himself an outsider. And I had the realization that even being co-located with the community doesn't make you an insider.

Today morning on the bus I was reading Che Guevara's "Global Justice: Liberation and Socialism" and a paragraph stood out at me:

"The way is open to infection by the germs of future corruption if a person thinks that dedicating his or her entire life to the revolution means that, in return, one should not be distracted by such worries as that one's child lacks certain things, that one's children's shoes are worn out, that one's family lacks some necessity.
In our case we have maintained that our children must have, or lack, those things that the children of the ordinary citizen have or lack; our families should understand this and struggle for it to be that way. The revolution is made through human beings, but individuals must forge their revolutionary spirit day by day."

I should probably be reading carefully the Pedagogy of the Oppressed soon. But this paragraph in the context of yesterday's discussion made me think about poverty and the reasons why we are struggling with elimination of poverty.

Two related points.

The "combined total wealth of 63 Indian billionaires is higher than the total Union Budget of India for the fiscal year 2018-19 which was at Rs 24,42,200 crore."

Pirate Praveen had once said this:

"Every privileged person thinks its their god given mission to help the poor and show their kindness. They do not want to acknowledge that their privilege is the result of historic oppression and they are part of the reason why they remain poor. They think poor people needs charity and kindness. What we really need is a conscious collective effort to end systematic oppression of people and that will need questioning of our own roles and privileges. Accepting our role in creating the poor is much harder than feeling good about helping poor."

Putting it all together made me finally understand the problem. The problem is us. The capitalists. The people who believe that a software engineer's time is worth 10 times more than the farmer's. The people who believe that it is okay to accumulate wealth and make profit.

The free market will never pay a farmer well. The free market is stacked against farmers. Why is it that way? Why are things priced based on their demand and supply rather than their intrinsic value?

Because that works well in favour of those few who are privileged to accumulate wealth. For things like food, they won't have to pay a lot. And they can use that money to spend on things like AC cars. They can hire a home-help for 4000 rupees a month and get them to cook for them. They can hire cheap labour and sell the combined thing for much higher value. And they can keep all the profit.

The farmer may spend all their time in the farm. Like a full time employment. But if you can pay not for that time, but for the onions they produce, it may turn out to be much cheaper. Which means you can buy more onions for the same money. And you sell those onions at a higher price. So, your profit increases. While the farmer remains poor.

This is how it works. The entire system of capitalism is based on rich becoming richer and poor becoming poorer. "Specialization" and "rare-resources" are ways to become rich. And once you are rich, you have the license to exploit the poor.

Socialism is where the farmer sets the price. (And not a "free" market). The farmer demands what is their due. The farmer does not have to give up their life to produce a season of crops. The farmer can say their "full time" is equivalent to that of a software engineer. And who would you be to deny?

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Saturday, January 4, 2020

Good Riddance, WhatsApp!

I took the jump. Deleted my WhatsApp account.

Yes, I know. There are too many important groups. There are people who can't use email or other means of communication. Coordination of so many things will become difficult. What harm is there in keeping the account, and not using it? What if there is an emergency?

But, I am sorry. I deleted the account.

The idea isn't new. Pirate Praveen doesn't have a Whatsapp account. Prashanth NS doesn't use Whatsapp. Cal Newport advocates digital minimalism. All in all, plenty of people have done well without WhatsApp and actively inhibit WhatsApp usage. But I won't ask you to uninstall WhatsApp just yet. Maybe at the end of this post.

WhatsApp is a good chat app. It has a simple interface. It works consistently in poor connectivity areas. It has various features that make chat easy. It may not be the best. I personally prefer Riot (a client of Matrix protocol) and Telegram for chat. But, WhatsApp still does its job.

Maybe it is chat that I do not like. Synchronous messages create a sense of urgency. The delivered/read ticks on WhatsApp forces me to respond quickly to messages. Maybe I'm not ready for that. Maybe I want to respond to messages when I want to.

Yet I use other chat apps. I use Telegram extensively. I use slack. What's the difference?

Perhaps I should start from the beginning. First, we invented the telephone. We could talk to each other at a distance. That is a definite value addition. You no longer had to travel long distances to talk to people.

Then there was internet. With that came email. The good thing about email was that you could send it across very quickly to large number of people (like mailing lists) and people could skim through many many emails very quickly.

There also was blogging. Blogs are like books. People may read you. People may not read you. A million people may see it. Nobody may see it. Blogs fulfilled the role of people wanting to reach out to the world and influence the world.

Then, there was the mobile phone. And with that came SMS. SMS was sort of like email, and sort of like phone call. It was designed to be short. It was designed to be direct. That allowed for quick, non-distracting, short message updates.

That is the point at which chat apps come to the picture. The biggest feature of a chat app is the group chat. Individual chats are just like SMS, but with pictures and videos they could be called SMS on steroids. But group chats is an entirely different paradigm. Group chats let people talk to multiple people at the same time. Sort of like a broadcast, but multi-way broadcast. That allows quick coordination of large groups.

I almost missed social networks. Social networks are like the sum of all the previous innovations. They combine the intimacy of group chats with an experience similar to walking through a virtual world and influencing a large number of people.

All of these are not without consequences. Firstly, our attention is now deeply fragmented. We have a thousand things we can engage with at any point in time. In the attention economy everyone has to shout louder to be heard. Soon everyone is shouting even more loudly. It becomes like a party floor where nobody can hear nobody else.

Secondly, it is so easy to bombard each other with messages that sooner or later people get strong opinions about things. And that makes for a heavily polarized world because people always tend to have differing opinions.

Thirdly, and most importantly, people are unable to work on hard problems with their mind into it because that requires focus and peaceful mind. I have a very big hunch that this is the biggest reason why economies world over are failing - because people simply aren't productive any more.

All that said, now I can state the reasons why WhatsApp and Facebook (and more recently twitter) are especially to blame.

The way Facebook is designed, you connect to your friends and family. And then you hear from them. Sure you can connect with various organizations, etc. But yet, nobody keeps their connections devoid of family and friends. This "social" prat of the social network makes it a very mediocre place. There is a very good chance that the best people you can listen to on any particular topic is not in your social circles. The best writers, thinkers, or analysts on the planet probably didn't go to the same high school as you did. Therefore, if you wanted to put your attention on the best things on any topic, Facebook is a very bad place.

Similarly, WhatsApp is designed for people who know each other well (well enough to have each others' phone number) to communicate. Even with group chats, you are probably not going to share groups with very smart people. WhatsApp, therefore, has the same pitfall as Facebook. It encourages mediocrity and conformation.

Apps like Telegram and Reddit do not have this problem. (Although the attention economy is still a problem there). And therefore WhatsApp gets an extra negative mark there.

And then, there are all the other reasons. WhatsApp is not free software. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook. (And since the last update it clearly shows on the splash screen that it is owned by Facebook). And Facebook is evil in various ways.

Of course this post would be incomplete without me telling how I actually managed to pull this off.

First, I had notifications turned off for WhatsApp through Android settings. It had been that way for months. Essentially, I would see WhatsApp message only when I opened the app.

But, about a month back, right around the time CAA was passed, I started doing another thing. I used a firewall app called NetGuard (which doesn't require root) to block internet to WhatsApp. And I hid the WhatsApp icon in the Niagra launcher I use. And I turned off background data (just an added measure because NetGuard anyhow stops background data). And I changed my WhatsApp status to let people know that I won't be online. And I changed my profile picture with a message that I won't be online. And then I kept silent for days.

The first time I did that, it was in solidarity with the people suffering from internet shutdowns in India. When I logged in after about a week, I noticed that I hadn't missed a lot of important messages at all.

So, I tried it again. This time I did it for two weeks. And this time too, I hadn't missed anything important. My patients could either directly call me or my clinic manager for appointments. My colleagues could message/call/email me any important thing from the WhatsApp groups. And I was insulated from all the "Merry Christmas and Happy New year" gifs.

The only reason I wouldn't go ahead and delete WhatsApp was that I wanted access to the past messages. Or so I thought as you will see in the next paragraph.

Today I thought I would install WhatsApp Business and set up an "auto-respond while away" message for giving people who contact me a fairer warning that I won't be reading their messages. But turns out that feature works only if you turn WhatsApp on and let it receive messages. While trying to switch to WhatsApp Business, I also lost the chat history (because for some reason it restores only from Google Drive backup while switching between WhatsApp and WA Business). And then I realized that I probably don't need access to my chat history.

To sum up, I had enough time away from WhatsApp and I was convinced that WhatsApp was an unnecessary evil and that life without it would be as convenient, if not more. And so I just went into the settings and deleted the account.

Now, nobody can inadvertently wait for a response from me because they won't be able to message me. And I can do my own deep work.

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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Fixing the World is Whose Responsibility?

This week I attended a session on quality improvement in healthcare practice. The definition of quality is subjective. What may appear to be "high-quality" to me, may not stand up to external scrutiny. There could always be room for improvement. But this is not a big problem. Some level of objectivity can be attained in measuring quality by using tools like standards. We can easily figure out areas that are below par and areas that are good enough. Identifying problems and areas to work on is not a problem at all.

The real challenge is in identifying responsibility. Whose responsibility is it to fix the problems? Sometimes fixing a problem is much easier than figuring out who the right person to fix the problem is. Most often it is not. Most often fixing problems require persistent effort and continuous follow-up. It takes time, energy, even money. And depending up on the scale of problems, these things can easily blow up. There are also some problems which have quick-fix solutions that are less sustainable than the proper but energy-intensive solutions.

After some months of joining Vivekananda Memorial Hospital, there was one evening when I was in the reading room. Dr Kumar who is now the CEO of SVYM walked in and asked me how things were. The conversation somehow came to my anger at the medical education system and how there was a lot of corruption in medical colleges. I was furious about my own alma mater and told him how I would never want to step foot in that college again. Dr Kumar, incidentally, had done his post-graduation in the same college and could relate to what I was talking about. But then, he told me the story of how he worked with, through, and for the system and made it better. He told me how he would challenge and oppose, yet be dear to the administrators. He told me how he could improve things at least by a bit while he was working there.

The transformation in my mind was instant (similar to how MAB once made me rethink the way I look at a disinterested audience). I, who was seething with anger at the system, suddenly saw possibilities. I could see the difference between productive contributions and blind criticisms. More importantly, I learned the concept of agency. I was no longer feeling helpless or like a hapless victim of the system. I was feeling like a person who could bring about change but was not yet utilizing my full powers.

The stories of Ananth Kumar, SVYM, Taru Jindal, Lalitha & Regi, and every other inspirational stories I've heard in the recent past demonstrate that simple principle. That if you put energy and effort, things will change. That even one individual matters.

I think the question of whose responsibility is it to fix things can arise of two things. One, the feeling that I cannot fix something because I'm powerless. That is a logic consistently proved wrong by many of these people I mentioned in the previous paragraph. But there is a second, more difficult reason people might choose not to fix problems. That is when I choose to not fix a problem because I don't have the time/energy to because I devote it elsewhere (in a place that I think is more important to focus on and solve problems in).

This second reason, is in my opinion, the bigger problem. This is the reason why even talented people can fail to deliver. Changing the system through innovation or persistence requires dedicated effort. It requires someone to show up regularly and stand up for the cause. It is the same as making a successful startup or raising healthy young children. It requires a lot of smart work. It requires productivity.

It all should start from the realization that every great person who has walked on this planet has had only 24 hours in their day - the same number of hours everyone else has in their day. What really matters is how much we can draw out of those hours. And for various reasons, not everyone is equally privileged to draw the same value from their days.

But what is really worth thinking about, is whether we are drawing the maximum value we can. Because if you can find a way to cut the cruft and get more work done, you might find just enough time to fix the world too.

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Monday, December 9, 2019

How to Travel In Bangalore - Get A BMTC Bus Pass

I've now spent more than an year using the public transport in Bangalore and made the best investment only this month. That is the BMTC bus pass.

Previously my commute was fully reliant on metro, but recently I joined MetaString foundation where I have to take the road to reach. There is a direct airport bus from where I stay to the office. The BMTC app gives a fair sense of where the buses are and how quickly I have to run to catch them. But giving 80 rupees in change every time I take a ticket was a pain. And unlike the metro, BMTC hasn't introduced smart cards yet. That's where the passes come in.

There are three classes of bus pass. The cheapest ones are 1050 including tax and lets you ply only in ordinary buses (non-AC). The next slab is 2363 which allows you to travel in volvo buses as well, but doesn't let you get on Vayu Vajra (airport bus). For the last category there is a 3570 rupees pass that lets you "yelli bekadru odaadubodu" (run around anywhere). But even that gold pass won't let you go in Bangalore Rounds bus (I have never seen a Bangalore Rounds bus). On the other hand, gold pass gives you a travel insurance which covers accidents.

I got my gold pass from Majestic (Kempegowda Bus station). But just getting the pass is not enough. You also have to get a BMTC id card. The ID card can be obtained on the other side of the bus pass issuing window of Majestic. You have to give a stamp size photo, your address, and phone number here which they enter sloppily in a register. The ID card has to match the pass and that's how they ensure that two people don't use the same pass.

The biggest advantage the bus pass provides me (even though it makes no economic sense for me who don't go to the airport every day) is the mobility. WIth the bus pass you can get on any bus and travel for any distance. This lets you make on-the-fly (pun intended) decisions about changing route/direction/bus. If there are better buses starting from the next stop, you can get on in any bus in the current stop, get down at the next stop, and switch to the better bus.

Additionally, the conductor can no longer make you feel guilty about not having change.

And above all, you save the environment. Less the Uber, less the traffic, less the pollution, faster the buses.

PS: I also got a new wirless keyboard. I'm now composing this blog post from a Vayu Vajra bus through my phone.

PPS: Also checkout "moovit" app which is a citizen app for travel information.

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Friday, October 25, 2019

Permanent Record (Book Review)

You could call it an autobiography of Edward Snowden or you could call it a manifesto for democratic citizenship. You would be right either way. This book is a how-to guide for becoming a hacker (in the realest sense of the word), a good parent, and a good lover.
A fair bit of caution advised though. The book will leave you paranoid. Once you realize the perverse amount of surveillance that you are subjected to without your knowledge, it becomes surveillance with your knowledge, and I don't know which is better.

I had once written a blog post titled "When Doing Good is Bad For You" from my own experience. In that I talk about how social revolutionists will perpetually face the dilemma of not doing anything versus fighting the system and putting themselves at risk in the hope of being able to improve the system. I have seen many others face the same dilemma. Edward Snowden also faces the same dilemma and we know what path he chose.

But till I read this book, I could not make that connection. That Ed Snowden is a human just like you and me. That he went through situations just like you and me. That the choices he had to make are the choices that confront us all similarly. That we are all perfectly capable human beings who can do great things.

It also gave me another realization. That the democracies we live in are very far away from ideal democracies. And that forgetting this can have real life consequences. And that despite all that it is necessary to continue the fight.

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