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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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Practical Career Guide for First Benchers

This is partly a response to "All That Glitters" by an IITian and partly a message to my brother who is an IITian.

Although I used to sit mostly on the back bench during school, I fit the first bencher stereotype more - good scores, liked by teachers, great expectations. I currently have a career tragectory that I am happy in. It hasn't stood the test of time and that is a caveat, but otherwise I'm perfectly qualified to write this guide.

The problem


What to do in life?

The dilemma is faced by every first bencher just after their schooling and throughout their college years. For me it extended till about an year after that.

Image by moritz320 from Pixabay

It is a dilemma because there is choice overload and there is opportunity cost. There are virtually an infinite choices on what to do in life, especially so for the first bencher. The "back bencher" has it easy because a lot of choices are eliminated by steep barriers and therefore their options become simpler. But the first bencher knows nothing called impossible. They feel that they can do anything if they put their mind to it. And so they have all the options they can think of.

But the opportunity cost is real. No matter how productive you are, you can't sleep 8 hours in 4 hours. There is an opportunity cost to every damn thing. And that's where the crux of the problem lies.

What to choose to do in the limited time alive? What things to prioritize? Happiness? Sure. But what brings about happiness? Does money bring happiness? Does autonomy, creativity, and intellectual satisfaction bring happiness? Does good relationships bring happiness? Can one not have all these? What if I do what everyone else is doing for a while and figure out in some time? What if I get stuck in that rat race? What is the meaning of life?

Existential crisis apparently is sort of depression.

Potential solution

I'm very wary of prescribing one size fits all solutions. There is one approach I have followed in my life which I've found to work very well for me. I call it "being ambidextrous".

The fundamental tenet of this approach is to shun exclusionary thinking. Exclusionary thinking is when you think "if I take up a 9-4 job, I can't become an entrepreneur", "if I get married, I can't do adventures", or "if I become a doctor, I can't become an engineer". There is always a way to pursue two or more interests together.

The challenge is in finding that way. Sometimes it is hard and will involve moving geographies, spending money, losing sleep, etc. But once you find a way to follow your heart in all directions your heart wants to go, you will have a happy heart.

Should I not make money?

There are a few basic things you need in life
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Shelter
  • WiFi
You really need to take care of this. And that involves making some money. But the money required for meeting these basic needs is trivial to make for first benchers.

Then there are some other needs which also require money
  • Friends & Family
  • Health
  • Entertainment
  • Transport
These are some areas where frugality really helps. With good accounting of income and expenses, careful planning, and hard work the money required to take care of these can be kept low. When you don't need a lot of money, you don't have to make a lot of money.

What about ambition?

There are two ways to look at this. One is that ambition is bad/unnecessary. That success is hyperromanticized. In this outlook, you try to make time for simple things in life. You call ambition as society's unreasonable expectations from you.

The other is that ambition is helpful. That it gives a direction in life. That it gives meaning to life.

But do you notice the circular reference in that latter approach? How do you choose your ambition?

Here also being ambidextrous has helped me. It is important not to go too much behind meaning. It is also useful to have a few ambitions. Maybe a better word is goals. Not all goals need to be achieved. Goalposts can be shifted. In fact, if you grow up, you're bound to realize some of your goalposts were wrong.


I've had two mentors tell me that confusion is a sign of thinking mind. So if you're confused, that's a good thing. Another thing is that the confusion never ends. Mid-life crisis occurs at all ages and at all junctures in life. The approach to deal with this that I suggest above is greatly influenced by Zen Habits.

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    Friday, July 12, 2019

    How Did I Become A Programmer?

    Arya asked me from Germany, "How did you start with programming? Maybe write a blog about it? Your learning strategies".

    To those of you who know me as a doctor, I'm a professional programmer who can work on any part of the stack (and even off the stack), and a free software advocate. To those of you know me as a programmer, I'm a professional modern medicine practitioner who can manage any kind of illness (including emergencies in the appropriate setting). To those of you who do not know me, I do much more than what I just described.

    But how does one become a doctor and a programmer? As it takes indeed some explaining to do, the suggestion to write blog was excellent and here it is.

    I have written about my privileges previously. So I won't repeat that. But it is important to know that some of the things I'm going to describe maybe either much easier for you or much more difficult for you depending on where you are in your life. In other words, your mileage may vary. But do read on, as there are some common principles which should apply to everyone.

    Start early
    I started in fifth standard, I think. With a simple programming language called MS Logo. I didn't know what a programming language was back then. All I was doing was moving a small turtle move on the screen and draw shapes. But the only way to move that turtle was by writing commands.

    FD 50

    The turtle would move forward 50 steps

    LT 90

    The turtle would turn left

    FD 50

    Another 50 steps forward, but this time to the left of your screen

    You could write this 4 times each and get a square.

    But soon you will feel like you are writing too many commands and that sometimes these are repetitive. For example, drawing the square above required the same two steps (FD 50 and LT 90) four times in a row. What if you could tell turtle to repeat the same?

    REPEAT 4 [FD 50 LT 90]

    That would make a square in logo! And that is what a loop is (pun not intended).

    Loops are the biggest fundamental concept in programming. If you can understand a loop, you can understand the entirety of programming. That means, if you could read the above section and make sense of it, you have everything that is required to become a programmer. Only time and effort can hold you back now.

    But there is so much more about it, right?


    Let's not digress. Where did we stop? Logo. Check this article/tutorial on logo. Don't try to run it or anything. Just go through the entirety of it. When you see the complex fructals that gets drawn towards the end of the page, you should be able to realize another big and fundamental truth about computers or programming - you can make the computer do anything, but only if you tell it exactly how to do it.

    Well, that is what programming is, you see. Telling computer every single step of what needs to be done. The computer is insanely smart and insanely dumb at the same time. It can do anything and everything, but you have to tell it how to do it. And you have to tell it every single step of how to do it.

    Imagine you are teaching the computer how to make tea. Let us have an imaginary conversation with the computer on how to make tea.

    You: Make tea
    Computer: How?
    You: Heat water. Then put tea dust. Then put milk. Then put sugar. Then stir. Then pour to cup.
    Computer: How to heat water?
    You: Take water in a vessel. Then keep the vessel on the stove. Then switch on the stove. Then wait till the bubbles start coming in the water.
    Computer: How to take water in vessel?
    You: Move vessel under the tap. Switch on the tap. Wait till the vessel is filled half. Switch off the tap.
    Computer: How to move vessel under the tap?
    You: Find out where the vessel is. Pick it up by the handle. Find out where the tap is. Move till there. Keep the vessel perpendicularly under the tap with empty side up.

    You get the point, right? If we go down this route till the level of physics, we will have made an electronic teapot. It will unfortunately not be able to make coffee though.

    But that is all there is. Break down a problem into individual single steps till the point where a computer can natively "understand" what you mean to say. CPU is a rock that we tricked into thinking. It only "understands" electricity. All that we see in the computer world is manipulation of this electricity into configurations that we want it to be in.

    But, that's so deep? How can we break down everything to such great level of detail? Is it even humanely possible? That brings us to the second fundamental tenet about computers - you build on the work of others.

    You literally cannot build a computer all alone. There are thousands of parts to a computer which were made through even larger pathways that are possible only due to the combined human investment of effort in the past thousands of years. If you could take all the knowledge that exists in world today and go back a 1000 years, it would still be impossible to build a computer.

    You build on the work of others. That's what you do in programming. People have built operating systems, libraries, applications, programming languages. There already is a lot of what you want to do out there in the world. Instead of trying to figure out everything by yourself, you build on others' work.

    Even learning. People write about what they have learned. You can then use their learning as your learning. The programming world is an excellent model of co-evolution. A communist utopia.

    You want to build a website? There are libraries and frameworks available for that.
    You want to build a business? There are e-commerce frameworks.
    You want to write a blog? There are blogging software.
    What about that teapot? Well, you can build on existing work for that too.

    There is one thing, though. You can't learn programming without doing programming. It is like cycling in that sense. You have to start slow, fall a lot of times. But once you get a hang of it, you can keep improving till you start doing tricks that make you look like a pro.

    One approach that has helped me a lot is not giving up. Every programming task appears daunting in the beginning. But once you break it down into smaller steps and start working on each piece, you feel a bit more confident. And then you inevitably run into trouble. But there are literally thousands of resources on the internet to help you.

    Understanding what exactly your problem is, and then looking for solutions to that problem helps. At this point, I will be less of a hacker, if I don't link to ESR's article on how to become a hacker, instead choosing to repeat what has already been accomplished. While you are at it, also learn how to ask smart questions.

    Still feel like you need a prescription? Here you go:
    Set up linux on your computer.
    Pick up python or javascript.
    Find out a problem you want to solve, and use python or javascript to solve that.
    Keep repeating.
    Pick up other technologies on the way.
    Don't leave anything as "I don't know that, it is not for me", instead tell "I don't know it yet, so I should learn it now".

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    Thursday, May 2, 2019

    How To Travel in Bangalore

    I've been traveling extensively in and around central Bangalore for the past 6+ months. I have experimented with various modes of transport and various tools that assist finding the right transport in these journeys. Today when I met Nishan on his first day of a new life in Bangalore, I realized I have been traveling long enough to give some travel advice.

    Disclaimer: This may not apply to all parts of Bengaluru, especially the Electronic City side (which actually should come under Chennai metro)

    What is the best way to travel in Bangalore? It depends. What time is it? Where are you going? How much time do you have?

    BMTC is the most connected public transport system in Bangalore. The frequency of buses is usually inversely proportional to how badly we want to reach somewhere quickly. But, if we leave enough time to wait for the right bus, there will always be a bus. 

    The BMTC app on play store is a hit and miss. If you've used it successfully in a particular route and if the time is before 8pm there is a high chance that the "Trip planner" will show buses that actually are plying. In fact, in such situations the information is so accurate (location, bus number plate, etc.) that I've been thinking about an Uber like service on top of the BMTC app.

    There is a monthly pass if it works for you. For ₹1100 in ordinary buses and ₹1700 in AC buses you can travel wherever you want how much ever you want for a month. These passes can be got from any of the bus stations. There is also a daily pass which can be got from bus conductors.

    Namma metro is simple. It either goes where you are going or it doesn't. Indiranagar, Jayanagar, Majestic, Mysore Road, Yeshwanthpur - these are best connected by the metro. The unfair advantage metro has over any other means of transport is that at 7 o'clock when the entire road network is jammed up, the metro rail just flies over the traffic.

    In rush hour, if possible, always choose metro.

    Get a metro card. It saves 15%. It can be recharged online. And it can be kept in wallet which allows you past gates by waving the wallet over them.

    Uber and Ola are for business class travel. Also, when it is late night and there is no other way to travel. Rapido is for teenagers who aren't afraid of dying. Avoid all these unless absolutely trapped.

    Google maps
    The only tool you need to figure out the best route to anywhere is Google maps. It may not always get the timing right (especially for buses), but it always calculates the quickest route. Use the public transport tab. Use options and choose "subway" whenever there is a chance. Experiment with the starting/ending point a bit and there may be more convenient routes.

    When using Google maps for planning travel, always be mindful of the time of day for which the calculations are made. Change this in the "arrive by" or "depart at" setting.

    To conclude, traveling cheaply in Bangalore is possible. The secret is in planning and timing. Use the tips I've laid out with your own judgement and enjoy traveling!

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    Sunday, March 17, 2019

    Making Time

    Yesterday Swathi and I visited Anivar and Joshina and their kids. It has been at least 5 months since we started planning this visit. And we finally made time for it, yesterday.
    The moment we stepped inside Noonu and Ilan were on us - showing their toys, making us read story books, laughing at jokes, jumping, dancing, and purely enjoying. I burst out laughing at one particular joke in Balarama and could not control myself for half a minute. We had lots of food for stomach and mind.
    I had asked Joshina about her work some time in the recent past. She told me about her current life philosophy which resonates with what Anivar told about his life philosophy a few weeks back, both of which struck a chord in me. The following is what it boils down to.

    The society will expect superhuman things from you. Whenever you do something, there will be a few people to ask you about that next thing that you haven't done. If you keep trying to satisfy all these "next things", you will never be able to keep up. Because it is humanly impossible. But more importantly, you will be happy only if you are doing the things you want to do and those are things that bring you happiness.
    A few weeks ago, I had said to myself "the secret to getting things done is to have more things to do". I think I was not entirely right. The focus should never be on getting things done. The focus should be on finding out things worth doing.
    Today, coincidentally, I read Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day (affiliate link). I started it today and I made time to finish it today. And now I have made time to write this blog post today. The book gave me a strategy to implement the theory I learned in The One Thing (affiliate link).
    The idea is to focus on life and not let it wither away. To focus on things that make sense to you. Things that are meaningful to you. Things that you will regret not doing. Make time for those things.

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    Sunday, February 24, 2019

    On (Not) Judging People

    Human beings have an in-built sense of "morality" that they routinely apply against everything that they come across. There are multiple ways one's sense of what is moral and what is immoral emerges - including religion, upbringing, exposure, rationality, mental health, and so on.

    Is morality necessary?

    Morality is necessary. Not just because it allows people to live together without killing each other. But also because it helps an individual answer their own questions about what to do in any particular situation. It is the moral compass that often shows the direction to forge.

    Should we use morality to judge others?

    A distinction needs to be made before answering this. When "judging" someone, are you judging the person or their action? The answer matters a lot.

    When you judge a person for a particular action, you are labeling that person as "good" or "bad" based on that action. For example, if you see the CEO of a company scolding an employee for a "small" thing and judge the CEO to be a bad person, you may be making two mistakes.
    1) You do not know the reasons why the CEO is scolding the employee. It may even be for the good of the employee in the long term.
    2) By labeling the CEO as a bad person, you have created a barrier between you personally and them which might make it difficult for you to work with them.

    There are several cases where reason 1 does not apply at all. For example, say the CEO is actually doing something, say, being corrupt, which they themselves might not be able to defend.

    But reason 2 is more important for someone who is trying to get things done. People are not dispensable. Human resource is hard to come by. If you start judging people by a few of their actions and dismiss them as "bad". If you make it impossible for you to be working with them. Then you have one less person to work with. And when we are all humans and everyone will have some or the other "follies", especially when you are viewing them through your sense of morality (which, having been formed by your own unique experiences in life, is going to be different from anyone else's sense of morality), judging people will soon leave you with nobody you can work with.

    In other words, every human is different. If you keep looking for people who think, walk, and talk exactly like you to forge teams, you will never be able to move forward.

    But, does it make sense to judge actions? Yes. As long as the judgement does not spill over to the person as a whole. In fact, judging actions is natural and direct consequence of morality. But extrapolating that judgement to an entire person is human bias.

    But what if someone is wrong in all areas of their life? I think it is quite right to be mathematical here. The total value of a person is the sum of all their individual values and the added value that interaction of values give them.

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