Monday, November 12, 2018

11 Years of Blogging

I am on Blogger since November 2007. It is 11 years this month.

When I began, it was just me exploring the Internet. Everyone was making blogs back then. And I had to make one too.

I made one. Then I made another, and then another. I have created some 36+ blog on blogger. I made one for my village, for my city, for my school, for my other school, two for my college, one for my university, one for pre-med preparation, one for physiology, one for biochemistry, one for anatomy, one for boss linux, one for scouting, one for APJ Abdul Kalam, one each for all subjects that fascinated me. The vast majority of them are bare barring one or two posts.

Facebook, Twitter, and others took the crowd away and in turn the publishers. I have written countless posts on Facebook only to lose them all when deleting my account.

But it wasn't about the medium. It was about the act. Expression of an opinion. Free speech. Archiving thoughts and information for posterity. In fact, the latter is the philosophy behind my website learnlearn.in.

Thank you @freephotoscc for sharing these awesome photos on https://freephotos.cc/ for free! 🎁
Blogging helped me develop a perspective on things. It made me think more concretely and in depth about whatever I wrote about. And I wrote about a lot of things.

It also gave me a rare confidence of accomplishment. I was creating things rather than consuming. And on the internet, the creators are one rung above the consumers. It is this confidence that propels me on a path of building things.

I am excited about this milestone. And the result is going to be more things from me for you to read.


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Friday, September 28, 2018

Photograph 51, Bangalore Little Theatre rendition

In my 6+ years in Mysore, I've seen around 6 plays. 2 plays that I don't remember, and 4 times "Madhyarathriya Thiganegalu" by Rangayana.
Come my second week in Namma Bengaluru, I witnessed a 1 hour 30 minute spectacle called "Photograph 51" by Bangalore Little Theatre. Oh, where do I start about this heart warming, yet insanely funny and intellectual play?

The venue was JRD Tata Auditorium. There were scientists and senior citizens taking up majority of the seats. The stage was set as a dimly lit Chemistry lab. The story of Rosalind Franklin.

"The play is about the race to solve the structure of the DNA and the role of Rosalind Franklin who provided the critical evidence for this. For a long time, she never got the credit and this play highlights her efforts in science at a time when the doors of science were not open for women."

The introduction by the director and his daughter set the tone for what was about to come. Photograph 51 is that image of the DNA taken by Raymond Gosling and made the mystical thing a little less mystical.

As soon as the cast walked on to the stage, the narration started, by none other than the actors themselves. This is one of the many exciting things about the play. There is no narrator. But there are many narrators. And they are all part of the play as well. The narration is sometimes weaved through dialogues. The fourth wall gets breached many times, but what do you call the wall between the narrator and the actor?


Then there is the wit. If I were to put the play in one genre, I would choose comedy over history, feminism, and science. But it is not a comedy play. The wit never bothered the story. Wit was always self-contained either in soliloquies or in quick exchanges between the actors.

There is love. There is passion. There is heartbreak. There is reality. This play is a must watch.

And for that matter, they are performing it one last time on 29th September in Bangalore. Head over to BLT's website for more information.


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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Understanding the 1/5 Unconstitutionality of Aadhaar and What You Can Do About It Today

What is the difference between a monarchy and a democracy?

I am Tipu Sultan. I rule the kingdom of Mysore. I ensure that my kingdom flourishes. In order to ensure that, I will make certain rules. I will punish those who do not follow the rules. Welcome to Mysore.

We are the people of India. We will decide what happens in India. We will elect representatives among us to make rules for India. We will keep changing these representatives. We will ensure there is social, economic, and political justice; that there is freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship; that there is equality of status and opportunity among us; and we will promote among ourselves fraternity assuring the dignity of each of us and the unity and integrity of India.

Which of these places would you want to be born in? Mysore or India?

I was born in India. I was not born when India was in hundreds of pieces and ruled by different kings. Neither was I born when India was under the British emperor. I was born after Indians came together, said "enough is enough" and claimed India for themselves, and having drafted for themselves the Constitution of India, decided to live by it as a democracy where justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity will prevail. Thank goodness I was born in a democracy.

Here is a picture of the constituent assembly. Whatever they discussed while drafting the constitution is available on the Loksabha website. Reading through the constituent assembly debates is in my bucket list as well. 
Anything more than incremental change is hard. Except during revolution. During revolution, change is the norm. India's independence from Britain was a revolution. Because of our experience with monarchy, we chose democracy as our governing moedel. A strong constitution is fundamental to the survival of a democracy. We drafted a strong constitution taking inspiration from various strong democracies. We set that in stone. We set our democracy in stone.

The beautiful thing about principles is that well-thought principles rarely need to change. For example, Mahatma Gandhi made truth and non-violence his principles. He could live his entire life on those principles. It is principles that give rise to many of the organizations we see around us. When the principle dies down, the organization too. The way we operate, the rules we follow, the things we do, everything can change. But the principles won't. Indian constitution defines the principles of our nation. Whatever happens in our country should be in line with the principles laid down in our constitution.

Think about it for a second. The constitution is the foundation of our democracy. If we do not uphold the constitution, we are destroying our democracy, we are giving up on all the principles that the constitution stands for. Hold that thought.

The constitution alone is not sufficient to run a country. Which is why the constitution allows for setting up of legislative, judiciary, and executive branches for the democratic government. Legislative to write laws. Judiciary to read laws. Executive to execute laws. (Like Unix file permissions). And there is clear power separation between the branches on who can do what.

The distinction between branches work well when everyone is doing just what they are supposed to. Law gets passed by legislature that from October 1 people should ride their vehicles on the right side of the road. Police fine or even arrest people who are riding on the left side on Gandhi Jayanthi. They are produced before the court and the court gives them the punishment prescribed in the act.

Things get murky when the constitution is involved or invoked, though. Vrinda Werkijal who was arrested on October 2nd, goes to the court and says "It is my constitutional right to ride on the road as I please. Rather than punishing me, you should strike down the law that says I can't ride on the left side." Then the court would be happy to point out to Werkijal that there is no constitutional right to ride on any side of the road and put Werkijal in jail.

But, imagine the law was about free speech. Say UP passes a law tomorrow that says people should not use the word "beef" in the state. Abhish Mathew could go to the court even before he gets arrested and argue that the law is against the fundamental right of freedom of speech and therefore should be struck down. Easy peasy.

Wish everything was so black and white. Many laws are huge. Huge in terms of the components in it. Take Aadhaar Act itself. It has 59 clauses spread over 8 chapters. And many of these are complicated compounded sentences with multiple sub-clauses. When an unconstitutionality claim on such a thing is claimed, it will indeed take months of litigation and thousands of human hours to decide on constitutionality.

In short, there is only one argument against aadhaar: it ensures surveillance while claiming to ensure welfare and does not even ensure welfare.

Let us imagine. What does it take to decide on this case? Even for a person who is not influenced by politics and not corrupt, it takes deep and philosophical understanding of:
  • the constitution
  • how surveillance damages democracy or how privacy is important in democracy
  • the disproportionate power that entities with access to big data obtain
  • the technology that is running behind aadhaar
  • the reality of welfare delivery in our country
Unfortunately, superficial understanding of these won't do. Someone with superficial understanding would say things like, "hmm, aadhaar will help catch terrorists", "hmm, we can save money by removing fake accounts in the PDS", "hmm, you don't have to worry about surveillance if you have nothing to hide".

But if you go read the critiques of aadhaar, you can hear deeper perspectives on how biometric authentication is probabilistic and how arbitrarily a threshold setting configured on a software can either declare you undeserving or deserving for your fundamental rights; on how design choices enabled illegitimate enrollment which has lead to ghosts and fakes in the database - the very thing you set out to weed out; on how democratic voices are stifled in a surveillance state; on why Rajya Sabha is indeed a part of the parliament; and so on.

Relevant section from Supreme Court judgement on Aadhaar's constitutionality

So, why would someone feel like aadhaar is unconstitutional while others don't? Why is it 1/5 unconstitutional? You know the answer, don't you?

If you would like to spend more time crying over spilt milk, read from page 568 onwards of this PDF file.

What you must do now

As a citizen of India, it is in your own best interest to ensure that the democracy continues unharmed. The best way to do so is to elect representatives wisely. That is not an everyday choice though. But you do have a choice every day to engage with the government. For example, ministry of electronics and information technology has invited feedback on a draft personal data protection bill. The bill is riddled with issues. First, read analyses of it. Here are a few links:

Looking at loopholes in sections of the Bill pertaining to data ownership, RTI and more
Loopholes pertaining to empowerment of children, consent and surveillance State
India’s data protection draft ignores key next-generation rights

Then, write to the ministry with your comments.
Through Ministry directly
Through Maadhyam

Be a good citizen. Live in a strong democracy.


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Monday, September 3, 2018

Bridges, bridges, everywhere

I'm a Bangalorean now. I have a metro card as well. For about a week now, I have been talking to a lot of people and reading (also searching for 1BHKs around IISc). Turns out there are not many secrets in answers to "What to do in life?"

There were a few points that made sense and helped me gain immense clarity. I'll list them down.

Immanuel Kant: Mark Manson's post on him is a nice read on the kind of moral philosophy that we can have. It is slightly complicated but boils down to "strive to be the best, if not you're doing injustice to yourself".

Remember it was the same idea that propped up earlier with reference to Gita.

In fact, Priyanka Chopra lists down 12 rules in her breaking the glass ceiling talk which sounds similar as well - be fierce, fearless, and flawed.

Stoicism: Talking about fears, Tim Ferris made a really nice TED talk on defining fears and defeating them. He gives an excellent tool to practice stoicism. And stoicism is an absolutely useful "-ism" in times of uncertainty.

Bridges: The place where I have to go to isn't really somewhere that people frequently go to from my place. Therefore, I have to build a few bridges to that place. The only issue is to differentiate bridges from hangouts.

Money: There are a few important lessons about money.

One is that money saved is indeed money earned. If you can decrease your expense, you won't need a huge income.

The other is that money created is a measure of value created. If you are building a product and want to know if it really adds value to the world, just count how much money has been generated by the product.

Integrity: When we talk, we need to walk the talk. This doesn't mean you stop talking about anything that feels important to you. It means that you should keep pushing. Talk, then write, then do, then do more, then do maximum, and then keep doing.

Bed bugs: Bed bugs are really pesky pests. Do not try to adjust with such annoyances. Overcome them.

Failure is not a choice. But success definitely is.


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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

What Next?

I am privileged. I was born into a higher middle class family in Kerala. I have not been discriminated against based on my family's religion/caste/colour/whatever. I am male. My parents are both alive and work in public sector. I even had access to internet at a very early age. I was allowed and assisted to dream.

Precious copy of my life plan (written after 10th standard)
My father is a doctor. I became a doctor. Natural. It was not incredibly difficult. I did not have to fight unfair situations. I had plenty of help.

I think it is because of my excellent background that I am able to even recognize these privileges.

Consciously or not, much of my life's philosophy is influenced by this. My obsession with free knowledge, is a good example. I may not be able to erase the advantages I already have, but I try to avoid relying on them.

There is no point in beating myself too much either. I am not responsible for my privileges. But I am accountable. Having had all this, if I do not make the best out of them, I am wasting them. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But what if life gives you apples?

I have a few straightforward options.
  • Become a specialist/super-specialist doctor. Work in one or two hospital(s). Make a lot of money. Help a lot of people.
  • Go back to SVYM. Help build a resurgent India.
  • Join some other organization/hospital/research project which can benefit from a clinical doctor.
None of these are mutually exclusive options either.

Yesterday I was coincidentally discussing with dad a verse from Gita which has many different interpretations.

karmaṇyēvādhikārastē mā phalēṣu kadācana.
mā karmaphalahēturbhūrmā tē saṅgō.stvakarmaṇi৷৷2.47৷৷


Specifically, it is the last part we concentrated on. "You should not not do your duties." How do you know what your duties are, though?

Every person plays multiple roles in their lives. They would have multiple roles each inside family, work, society, and any other sphere of their life. There are duties in each of these. Is there any way you can prioritize one above the other?

I have never been good at prioritizing things in the past. I usually get distracted by the most visible task and forget rest of my duties. I sometimes am able to note them down and come back to them. But this is fixable.

24 hours is what everyone has per day, on Earth. There are indeed people who get a lot accomplished in that 24 hours. If they can, so can I. I will have to organize my time well and get disciplined. And more importantly, I will have to choose the right commitments.

That is what we are coming to, aren't we? Commitments. What are the right commitments for me now? What should I do next?

I keep reading "A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life By Leo Babauta" now and then. The gist is this:

The idea behind all of this is that you can’t know what you’re going to do with your life right now, because you don’t know who you’re going to be, what you’ll be able to do, what you’ll be passionate about, who you’ll meet, what opportunities will come up, or what the world will be like. But you do know this: if you are prepared, you can do anything you want.
Prepare yourself by learning about your mind, becoming trustworthy, building things, overcoming procrastination, getting good at discomfort and uncertainty.
You can put all this off and live a life of safety and boringness. Or you can start today, and see what life has to offer you.
Lastly, what do you do when your parents and teachers pressure you to figure things out? Tell them you’re going to be an entrepreneur, start your own business, and take over the world. If you prepare for that, you’ll actually be prepared for any career.
Is this advice for me? Am I already at that point where I should be knowing what I'll be doing and who I am? At the end of my final MBBS, I thought the one year of internship will be the time when I finally understand what I will do with my life. But I was wrong. During FHM, I got a few ideas on the kind of life I do want to pursue. I am sure I will not be going back to a university in a few years. And then there are a few preferences.

I sort of want to do things that create massive impact. That is why I got bored of clinical work. It was the same thing happening every day. Sick patients, some diagnosis, some treatment, some outcome. At the end of the day, not much has changed in the way things are.

I want to do creative things as well. I do not want to be remembered for things I did. I want to be remembered when people use things I built.

I love internet. It is a technology that has immense potential. I want to utilize it.

I love computers. Computers (including the small ones called smartphones) are all over the world. Sooner or later they will take over the world. I definitely want to be a part of this take-over.

I love teaching and learning. I want to help people learn all they want to. Knowledge should not become monopolized. 

I believe I am good at a few different skills - programming, writing, clinical care, teaching. I want to do things that utilize all my skills. If I do not utilize all the skills I have, I am wasting those skills. That would be running away from "duty".

In fact, I have a few ideas in my mind which are aligned with all these preferences. I want to build free software (free as in freedom) that bring the power of internet and data science to healthcare. I want to enable people (especially the ones in healthcare) to achieve more through the use of technology. I want to make sure this immense power (of technology) does not get accumulated in a few hands. And I want more people like me - I want to ensure there are hundreds of thousands of people with me who do things like me (or better!).

These can't happen if I am alone. I need to connect with people. I need to build on collective strength. I already know a few people I would love to work with. Almost all of them are in the Silicon Valley of India. What makes perfect sense for me to do next is - move to Bangalore and start talking to people. That's what I am going to do as well.


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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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