Tuesday, October 13, 2020

How Can I Be Useful For You?

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

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

List of things I can work with you on

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

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

List of my privileges you can use to compare

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

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

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

You can find my contact details here.

 

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


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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Why Wikipedia Is Evil

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

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

Monopolies are bad

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

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

Amazon, Uber, China, there are many examples.

Monopolies don't announce themselves

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

Here is where Wikipedia becomes interesting.

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

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

We may be too late to act too.

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

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

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

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


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Sunday, July 26, 2020

Liberty vs Morality

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

Liberty applies to individuals.
Morality is a social construct.

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

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

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

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

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


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


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Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Connection Between Curiosity and Knowledge

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

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

Curiosity. It keeps popping up here and there.

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

Generalist.

Superpower: Curiosity.

Probably not a cat


Can curiosity be a superpower?



One of the answers was about The Oxford Electric Bell:

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

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

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

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

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



Curiosity is a super power.

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


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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Is Feminism Brahmanism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later this idea is revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

But the differing view point is easy to figure out.

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

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

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

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


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How Not Having a Computer Science Degree Makes Me a Good Programmer

I didn't go to an engineering college. Looking back, I'm very glad that I didn't. If I had gone to an engineering college in India, I would probably have dropped out very quickly.

This post is not about how engineering colleges waste 880,350 years of India's youth every year. But if anyone teaching in an engineering college is reading this post, I would urge them to read "Teaching Tech Together" and think about their pedagogical approach to teaching adults. These days, people become adults (at least in learning psychology) even more quickly than before.

Being on my own has put me in a perpetual beginner's mode. I'm always learning. I'm never sure about something. I often seek better ways of doing things. I keep reading the documentation. I keep reading tutorials. I keep building and rebuilding mental models.

I do not learn from textbooks. While textbooks may make things easier in some way, they also remove a lot of details from you. A language might have introduced a new feature with an accompanying blog post that includes details about alternate approaches they tried and why they chose the final one they chose. A textbook might not go into such details. A lot of that meta information is lost. A lot of my learning has come from comparing different approaches and learning why the differences matter.

I do not learn for a pen and paper exam. This is a universal mistake by higher education departments. Why on earth do we have pen and paper exams in professional fields like engineering and medicine? What good is being able to write 2 pages about a "wrapper class" or about "diabetic retinopathy" if I cannot use wrapper classes in my programs or prevent diabetic retinopathy in my patients, respectively? The way someone learns when they have to write about something is very different from the way they learn when they have to use something. It is the same as learning bicycling. In India, you can have a PhD in bicycling without knowing how to ride a bicycle. Because we do not evaluate tacit knowledge.

In being self-taught I evaluate myself. And that puts the learner me in a very difficult spot. The evaluator me knows exactly how much the learner me knows. And therefore, the learner me is forced to continuously plug holes in the knowledge framework. It is also a real-time, continuous formative assessment that I go through every day. Even before I open the code editor I know that I don't know how to do something. A lot of my learning happens on my mobile phone browser when I'm traveling or eating.

---

Last day I was faced with the question, what is a good learning resource to start programming as an adult learner?

I thought about it for a while. As per teaching tech together, the mental models have to be built first. The problem with sending a learner with no background in programming to "learn x in y minutes" websites is that many of these courses do not approach it pedagogically either.

Then I thought, perhaps a pedagogical approach that happens online would utilize the instant feedback that learning programming through javascript can give in the browser. So I searched "learn programming through javascript" and reached on a course by Google. Interestingly, in the prerequisites of the course is a brilliant course called "Think Like a computer: the logic of programming". This is a good start. (Although it starts with object oriented programming and I would love to see a similar course for functional programming. But of late I've been thinking OOP and FP are the same at some level and so it doesn't matter).


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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 areyouafeminist.com

*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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