Saturday, September 4, 2021

Power is Useful

In my post about giving up ideological purism, I talked about how it felt like activism was weak resistance, and not something powerful. I still hadn't discovered an answer as to how to engage with and change the system powerfully. I have an answer now.

Power.

To make powerful change, one has to have power. Thinking about power as an anathema is not helpful.

The first place I saw this articulated unambiguously is in a tweet thread by Jonathan Smucker. Jonathan talks in no uncertain terms about how "Knowledge of what is wrong with a social system and knowledge of how to change the system are two completely different categories of knowledge."

That's true. And that's where I was wrong too.

What's wrong with the system (from my perspective) is concentration of power in the hands of a few. My naive solution to this was to fight power itself. To not pick up power. To disown and discredit power. But it was indeed naive. One can't defeat power structures by shying away from power.

The rest of Jonathan's thread is about how to organize politically and gain power. There was an article linked by someone else in reply about how to use words like "Power" and "Money" with transformational meaning.

From the little I know, Ambedkar also was a proponent of this method. Ambedkar asked people to "educate, agitate, organize". Ambedkar was essentially laying down the blueprint on how to change the system.

Today I had a chat with Prashanth on these same topics. Through many examples, daktre articulated the same idea, although daktre used the words "legitimacy" and spoke through the field of academics and the power that academic work lends you.

Daktre could also identify what was holding me back. The ambition of wanting to make large impact AND be perfect at the same time. The desire to make huge changes to the world (savior complex, but in an extreme scale) is fine. But the desire to be perfect while doing so is what causes problems. What if one is willing to let go of the want to be perfect? What if one is ready to make compromises in return of accomplishing a larger goal? One might personally become "blemished", might get called out for being a hypocrite. But in the larger picture, one might be able to accomplish more.

Yesterday Swathi and I were having a conversation over our lives and Swathi mentioned how it is screwed up to think that we can make large impact, that we can accomplish all we want. I was resisting by saying that we can indeed make large impact, we just have to find a way.

I think the path in front of me is clear. Embrace pragmatism. Gain power. Wield it carefully. Be willing to make compromises (and be called out by others for it). Helpful to keep a group of close friends who can call out quickly. Don't think of myself as the complete and perfect solution. Think of myself only as a piece of a larger solution.

Now I know why Anivar was asking me to get a PhD. I think I won't take the academic route to power. I'm looking towards the entrepreneurial route. Let us see where we reach.


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Sunday, August 15, 2021

Merit is Entitlement, not Privilege

In debates around reservation and merit, there is a recurring pattern.

First, someone will say "There is no level playing field. Someone starts from privilege, someone starts from lack of it. Therefore, merit is just privilege."

Then, the opponent will say "What makes you think I'm privileged? My parents struggled to make their ends meet. I burned the midnight oil."

The first person says "Do you know what inter-generational trauma that people from X background goes through?"

Then the opponent will say "Well, but the beneficiaries of reservation are from well off families"

This debate goes circularly with both sides saying they're being unreasonable.

That's when someone else will come in and say "Reservation is not a poverty alleviation measure, it is about representation"

That particular argument has a lot going on in it, which I'll try to unpack here.

***

Is merit a result of privilege?

This is complicated by two things - we don't know how to objectively define merit, and we don't know how to objectively measure privileges.

What is merit? Is merit the ability to score very high marks in an exam with multiple choice questions? Is merit the ability to use language very fluently? Is merit the ability to impress an interviewer? Is merit the ability to get a job done in real world? Merit could be defined as any of these. Who should define this? That's a tough question.

What about privilege? Is privilege one's economic status? Is privilege one's social capital? Gender? Caste? Ability? Skin-tone? Body shape? Which of the countless things that gives a person an advantage in the society should be counted towards one's total privilege? And how should their influence be added up? Which ones should be given more weight and which ones less? This is probably the subject of what is called Oppression Olympics.

Both of these questions can be answered definitively in very subjective ways. But, it is next to impossible to arrive at a public consensus on such answers. Nevertheless, the discussions around these are very educational and thought-provoking. And discussions can happen even if consensus cannot be reached.

***

What's the importance of the statement "Reservation is not a poverty alleviation measure, it is about representation"?

It shifts the perspective from the subjective field of defining merit and measuring privilege into the objective field of representative democracy and distributive justice.

Not that that comes without questions. The questions shift to "What is democracy?", "What is justice?"

What is democracy? The naive answer to this is that democracy is rule of the majority. But that's not democracy. That's an elective monarchy - where the majority elects a monarch and the monarch rules over the subjects in an authoritarian fashion. Democracies stand in contrast to such monarchies. Democracies are founded on values - equality, justice, liberty, fraternity, etc. That there are elections in democracies is just a side effect of these founding principles.

That's where the value "justice" comes in. What is justice? Justice is possibly a subjective matter as well. But it can be (circularly) defined as "fairness". What is fairness? It is easy to jump from here to the earlier point and say "Someone who has struggled should be rewarded - is fairness". But that's a very individualistic view of fairness. The questions around reservation are not about individuals. It is about the democracy. For a democracy to be fair, it has to distribute power and resources among its citizens in a way that is "fair". And at the level of the nation, that involves distributing power to socially marginalized sections of the society. That is justice.

***

See how switching from the discussion on individual privileges to that of democratic justice gives lesser loopholes for people to endlessly argue on?

In that perspective, when you look at merit, you don't see merit as privilege. You don't say that "What we call merit is just accumulated privilege." Instead, you see it as entitlement. You say "What entitles you to claim that your "merit" should be considered above the values of our democracy?"

That, arguably, is a stronger way to make the case for justice.


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Saturday, August 14, 2021

Why Would Conservatives Change when Liberals Don't?

In the debates around "merit", the conservatives have a very straightforward view - "hierarchy is natural, one should only care about oneself and getting ahead in one's life". The liberals, on the other hand, are the confused bunch. They have a hatred for hierarchy, but they live and breathe hierarchy too. They hate that people get ahead of others without caring for others, but they are compelled to do the same too.

And conservatives are quick to spot this. They will ask the liberal who talks about equity - "Why do you hold on to your privileges and ask others to give up theirs?"

I think they have a point. Why do liberals hold on to their privileges and ask others to give up theirs?

In x + y, Eugenia Cheng talks about how the world is set up for competition. That the world rewards those who do not care about others and in turn those who don't care for others "succeed". And Eugenia Cheng also urges us to look for solutions all around us, to try and convert competitions into collaborations.

But how many liberals are actually able to do that?

Aren't liberals using their accumulated privileges to accumulate more privileges?

Aren't liberals continuing in power hierarchies without destroying the hierarchy?

Aren't liberals legitimizing the very structures they hold responsible for the problems?

Aren't liberals trying to get ahead of others? Aren't they competing? Aren't they reinforcing the very notions of merit that they oppose?

If liberals don't change how they live their life, why would conservatives do?


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Friday, August 6, 2021

The Academic Publication Industry is Modern Day Feudalism

Even if the cost of journals were low and affordable, open access to scientific knowledge is the ethically correct and practically useful position for humankind.

Internet has made publishing costs near zero.

Why do journals still continue to exist? And why are they so expensive to society?

A common defense of journals is that "peer review" is important to ensure scientific integrity. We know from Retraction Watch and Pubpeer that peer review is not perfect. We also know how peer review can reinforce social inequities

We have an alternate model too - post-publication peer review. After all, what is peer review if not the entire world reviewing an article and weighing it for its pros and cons? Can reviewer 1 and reviewer 2 do better than that?

In the editorial ‘Open’ relationships: reflections on the role of the journal in the contemporary scholarly publishing landscape the authors state that there are a few more reasons why journals exist:

"One could optimistically assert that a journal can be multiple: both a brand, with a value indicated by the impact factor and the level of income it can generate for a corporate publisher on the one hand, and on the other, the home of a community of scholars with a history and (we hope) a future of pushing the frontiers of scholarship in public health."

It goes without saying that there is a conflict of interest here because it is an editorial. And therefore let us critically examine the reasons the editors propose to justify their own existence.

Are journals a brand with a value indicated by impact factor and income? Absolutely. Yes. Journals are blogs. But they are decades old. Sure, in "blogs", peer review is rare. But platforms like medium.com, and ghost.org do allow private publication that can be reviewed by others. If peer review is a genuine need for which authors publish in journals, there are countless ways to achieve that through the internet using blogs, etc (combining with post-publication peer review as described earlier).

Peer review is just a facade. It is the "impact factor" and the "brand" that authors use journals for.

The reason why we should end the meritocracy of impact factor is the subject of a recent editorial (irony intended): The merit privilege: examining dubious claims of merit in public health and public policy

Now, let us come to the only remaining argument for journals. 

Are journals a community of scholars with a history, who push the frontiers of scholarship?

First I'll make the assertion that the editorial doesn't include any citations on this claim. They use their belief and self-selected appreciation from readers to base this claim on. But I will take their word for it. Let us assume that people do appreciate this specific journal. But the editorial starts with the question "What are academic journals for?" We cannot generalize the experience of the editorial team of one journal to all academic journals. Therefore let us examine this claim more objectively.

First, we will examine whether it is reasonable for a community of scholars who share a history to work together.

We do know that human beings are very social. Shared history gives a shared sense of purpose and shared sense of identity. But it can also come with disadvantages. Identity as a group has the tendency to create conflicts with people outside the group. There is also chance for nepotism and favoritism. While scrutiny and skepticism is good for academic rigor, nepotism and favoritism are not good. So, shared history can be advantageous and problematic.

The next question is whether frontiers of scholarship is pushed by communities. Communities reinforce the beliefs of each other and help people go to extremes. And it is at the extremes that scholarship needs to be pushed. But communities can also reinforce falsehoods and false methodologies. We know in psychological experiments that humans tend to conform rather than stand out. Communities could cause this effect too. It can make people take less risks for the fear of being ousted from communities. Again, pushing frontier through communities has disadvantages and advantages.

Now let us come to the most important question. Are journals communities?

My answer is that they aren't.

Wikipedia says that a community "is a social unit (a group of living things) with commonality such as norms, religion, values, customs, or identity."

What is the commonality among groups around journals?

One might be tempted to say that the group has a common vision - the vision that the journal articulates.

But in my experience, most journals have a broad vision that makes them non-unique.

For example, let us take the journal from which the editorial is quoted:

Critical Public Health (CPH) is an international peer reviewed journal publishing critically engaged research in public health, health promotion and related fields.

Critical Public Health provides a dedicated forum for innovative analyses of theory and practice and to explore new ways of thinking about public health, bringing together international scholarship from social scientists and health researchers.

The journal explores issues of equity, power, social justice and oppression in health and covers contemporary empirical and theoretical work from a wide range of disciplines including anthropology, sociology, politics, cultural studies, health studies, medicine, psychology and nursing.

Now, this is a broad vision that I subjectively think most journals in public health will have. So I went to google and search "public health journal" and came up with the aims & scopes of some other journals.

Here are some.

European Journal of Public Health

The European Journal of Public Health is a multidisciplinary journal in the field of public health, publishing contributions from social medicine, epidemiology, health services research, management, ethics and law, health economics, social sciences, and environmental health.

The journal provides a forum for discussion and debate of current international public health issues with a focus on the European region
Global Public Health

 Global Public Health is an international journal that publishes research on public health including the social and cultural aspects of global health issues.

Global Public Health addresses public health issues that come to the fore in the global environment, such as epidemics of newly emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, the globalization of trade and the increase in chronic illnesses.

The journal is characterized by a global and multidisciplinary focus, its emphasis on significant global health issues and its concern to understand resource-poor and resource-rich countries including the public health challenges they face as part of a single, interacting and global system.
Journal of Community Health

The Journal of Community Health, a peer-reviewed publication, offers original articles on the practice, teaching, and research of community health. Coverage includes preventive medicine, new forms of health manpower, analysis of environmental factors, delivery of health care services, and the study of health maintenance and health insurance programs. Serving as a forum for the exchange of ideas and clarification, the journal features articles on projects that make a significant impact on the education of health personnel.
BMC Public Health

BMC Public Health is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on the epidemiology of disease and the understanding of all aspects of public health. The journal has a special focus on the social determinants of health, the environmental, behavioral, and occupational correlates of health and disease, and the impact of health policies, practices and interventions on the community. BMC Public Health does not publish clinical research: this should be submitted to the relevant BMC Series medical journal.
Of course you wouldn't find an article about public health in the Nature journal or a paper about cellular pathways in a public health journal. But within each broad field of "public health", "life science", "medicine" there are many journals with similar aims & scope. So, I do not think the aims & scope of a journal are unique to a journal.

Nevertheless, as the editorial claims, it might be possible to build a shared history around a particular journal's aims & scopes.

In fact, I know a few such journals. The Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, for example has a very vibrant community with people who have a shared history in the public health movement of India. But here is a very important thing about IJME:

 As a policy, since its inception, the IJME has never charged authors for publication of their writings, and all material available on the website of the journal is free and offers open access to all
How is IJME possible to publish all articles as open access through just donations? My answer is that they have a real community behind them.

In essence, it is indeed possible to build a community with shared history through a journal - through a democratic spirit of openness and accessibility.

But is this generalizable across all academic journals? My hunch is that it is not. My hunch is that most academic journals have a group of editors who care for the chance to build a community like that, but cannot do so by design.

If journals could truly form communities, they wouldn't struggle with the problem of underrepresentation.

If journals could truly form communities, they wouldn't have to make meritocratic excuses like "the underrepresented are underrepresented because they do not have the privilege to volunteer time or because they do not fulfill the prerequisite of a broad network"

Journals are part of a feudalistic system. One where the title of the journal is owned by a publisher (the feudal lord), who give powers to a set of editors (vassals) in return of profit (fief), and the authors have no choice other than writing articles in these journals (serfs). The only difference, one might say, is that serfs in the academic publication industry have the mobility to change journals. But wherever they go, they are serfs indeed.

If this is true, this also gives us a way out of this feudalistic system. Here's a paragraph from a law library article:

Predictably, the relationship between lord and vassal became a struggle for a reduction in the services required by the fief. Lords, as vassals of the king, joined their own vassals in revolt against the high cost of the feudal arrangement. In England, this struggle culminated in the MAGNA CHARTA, a constitutional document sealed by King John (1199–1216) in 1215 that signaled the beginning of the end for feudalism. The Magna Charta, forced on King John by his lords, contained 38 chapters outlining demands for liberty from the Crown, including limitations on the rights of the Crown over land.

As seen in the CPH editorial, there is already tension between publishers and editorials. Publishers are also in a strained relationship with the King (through initiatives like Plan-S). The logical conclusion is that within a few years, there will be a revolution where the right to own knowledge will be taken away from the academic industry and be given back to the producers of knowledge themselves.

Until then, the current generation of journals will try to justify their existence.


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Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Difference Between a Politician and an Academic in Politics

If academics and politics seem like separate fields to you, that's because your definition of academics has been corrupted by the academicians you have seen and their self-centredness.

Academicians can be of two types. The ones who "care only about science (or "truth")". The ones who care about society in addition to science.

Those who "care only about science" also care for something besides science. They care for themselves. They care for their own intellectual satisfactions or humane curiosities.

So, academicians can be of two types. Those who care only about themselves, and those who care about society too. (Of course, it is a fluid spectrum. At any point one can care x% about themselves and y% about the society. I'm using a strict binary for convenience.)

The academicians who care predominantly about society automatically engage in politics. Because that's the only way to change the society. Like I wrote about earlier, politics isn't just party politics. Politics also includes advocacy, activism. Academicians, by asking the right questions and "generating evidence", influence policy making and politics. They can give legitimacy to certain questions that go unasked. They can strengthen or weaken anyone's politics.

So what's the difference between a politician and an academic in politics?

Their willingness to lie.

An academic who is willing to lie for their politics is a politician. No matter how much they are in politics, an academic who will not lie for their politics is still an academic.


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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Anger is a Valid Emotion; Conflicts Bring Real Peace

I have seen "triggered" being used as an insult at social justice activists when they become angry. People hold anger itself as an invalid or incorrect emotional state to be in. That is not very smart.

Anger is a perfectly valid emotion. Anger is a reaction to a provocation, hurt, or threat. Anger is a form of expression. It means that one has been triggered. 

The problem is not anger. The problem is the original violence.

The violence that triggers someone is the one that needs to be corrected. Not the anger that follows.

This is where conflict becomes important. Conflict is a situation where two parties who have two versions of "truth" negotiate and try to arrive at a common version of "truth".

Whether a conflict gets resolved quickly or not depends on both sides wanting to and being able to find a common ground.

Emotions like anger are commonplace in conflicts. And that makes people averse to conflicts. More than the outcome, they are scared of the emotions.

It might be evolutionary. Anger could have been a sign of imminent danger in the past.

But, we are not monkeys anymore. We are humans.

Being scared of anger is not necessary anymore. On the other hand, expressing it and getting into conflicts are very much necessary.

Because only through conflict can there be a negotiation. Only conflict can change someone's "truth". And only when that happens will there be real peace.


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Monday, July 19, 2021

x + y by Eugenia Cheng - a Roadmap to Collaboration Between Social Justice Movements

Spoiler alert: I discuss the central theme of the book x + y by Eugenia Cheng in this post. In the book, this theme isn't revealed till the middle. In the first chapters, the author explains the context from which the book is written so as to eliminate bias from those who believe in social justice and those who oppose it. If you are a person who makes quick conclusions, you are better off skipping this post and directly reading the book.


---

 

It sometimes happens that feminists are accused of casteism, anti-caste activists are accused of sexism, etc. How can that be? Can someone who understands the oppressive ways in which patriarchy works not understand the same oppression in caste system? Or vice versa?

What is the lowest common denominator of various schemes of oppression?

Why do scientists lie? How can we replace competition with collaboration?

Why does capitalism seem to be the "natural" state of society?

Why are hierarchies so hard to get rid of? And how to get rid of them?

These are some of the questions that are answered in x + y: A Mathematician's Manifesto for Rethinking Gender by Eugenia Cheng.

Imagine a bus stop where 100 people are waiting for a bus with 50 empty seats. What happens when the bus comes to the stop? In some places you see almost all of the people rushing towards the bus door in a tiny stampede with some folks staying back for the rush to settle down. 50 among those who rush do get a seat. All of the folks who stay back get no seat. If you don't rush, you don't get a seat.

At this point, the debate can be about whether it is ethical to rush or not. There can be nuanced statements made about who should be given priority in seat. Whether the physically stronger should be made to wait while those who are vulnerable gets a seat. Whether those who have been waiting the longest should get the seats first. Whether those who have the most urgent things to attend to should get the seats. And so on. These are all valid ways to analyze this situation.

But one can also discuss the reasons why there are only 50 seats. The reasons that force people to rush. And the possibilities of changing the system altogether such that there are no advantages to being selfish. Such that people can stop worrying about individuals and start thinking about everyone.

That's the central theme of Eugenia Cheng's book. The individual centered (selfish) character traits are called "ingressive" characters and the society centered character traits are called "congressive" traits. And Eugenia Cheng is eager to ensure that readers look at this as a different dimension of looking at the problem and not as a way to replace the existing dialogues.

Eugenia Cheng thereby introduces two very valuable words to discuss problems in the society. These words are not connected to the background from which people come. Gender/race/caste doesn't directly lead to ingressive traits or congressive traits. There are indirect correlations. But the point of the book is to avoid looking at the correlations and start looking at the traits in each individual in an intersectional way. x + y is a classic in intersectional thinking.

More importantly, x + y is an extremely practical guide on what to do about the deeper problems. Awareness of the problem doesn't equate to solving the problem. x + y introduces a framework of thinking through which we can systematically destroy the oppressive notions ingrained in our societies. It is a tool of liberation for all victims of the system, irrespective of their privileges. It is an effective way of changing the "system".

It is a must-read for everyone who cares about social justice movements and equity.


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Thursday, July 15, 2021

Hatred Based on Stereotypes Weaken Social Justice Movements

This post talks about stereotypes, emotions, justice, etc from the point of view of a savarna, cis-het male who lives in a metropolitan city. Like the post claims, nobody can eliminate stereotype/bias from their worldview and therefore this post includes some stereotypes/biases too.

Trigger warning: Detached discussion of emotions that makes it sound like I'm judging the emotions.

Axioms

Let's assume a few things as truth.

One: Individuals cannot completely avoid stereotypes/biases. The human brain is a pattern recognition machine. It thinks through mental models of the world. It thinks through patterns. It thinks through stereotypes. The best an individual can do is to have a fairly nuanced and complicated outlook.

Two: There is a strong component of stereotypes in various kinds of oppression that we see in the society. Stereotypes are reinforced by other cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Human beings are susceptible to all these things. They use anecdotal evidence to "refute" comprehensive statistics. They think through emotions.

 

Arguments

I make three arguments in this post.

One: Hatred is sometimes/often used in social justice movements.

Two: Stereotypes and hatred are connected.
 
Three: Stereotypes that strengthen hatred makes the politics of social justice movements weaker.

In this post, I do not make a judgement on whether the hatred is justified or not (It is almost always justified). I also do not talk about whether hatred is used in oppression (Oppression thrives on hatred).

What I do talk about is how some of the hatred in social justice movements arises from stereotypes and how avoiding this component of stereotype/hatred maybe beneficial to social justice movements.

 

Hatred in social justice movements

This might be amplified by twitter, but the specific emotions of disgust and hatred is sometimes/often seen used by activists who engage in social justice movements.

It can manifest as angry rants, snap judgement, judgemental comments, monologues, etc.

Activists might be using hatred intentionally as a tool to evoke response/engagement. They might also be using it unintentionally as a result of being psychologically triggered. This can be due to stress, burn-out, and other discomforts. This can be due to the burden of lived experience and/or trauma. But I argue that stereotypes also contribute to this emotion.

 

Contribution of stereotypes to hatred

Like I posited, stereotypes are unavoidably human. Activists in social justice movements also accumulate stereotypes and biases.
 
The logical fallacy of false dichotomy also maybe involved. Some activists start seeing people as "either for our cause, or against our cause".

This can contribute to hatred.

 

When hatred is based majorly on stereotype, the politics is weakened

Hatred based majorly on stereotype is harder to justify than hatred not based majorly on stereotype.

If hatred is based on stereotype, it also opens the opportunity for political opponents to call it as hypocrisy.

Such hatred can evoke reactive emotions from others and cause weakening of the political cause.

 

Arguments against my arguments

One: This is tone policing.
 
This is about tone. But I don't intend to make a blanket judgement about whether hatred is justified or not. I am suggesting a sharper use of hatred such that hatred does not become counter-productive.

Two: This ignores the hatred spewed by the opponents.

Yes, my target audience is social justice activists who are already aware of the context of how debates happen in social media, etc.

Three: It is easy for the privileged to say these.

Yes. I acknowledge my privileges in saying these. It is a suggestion for people who have the privilege to consider this.

Four: Read up "righteous indignation"

I have. I am on your side. I'm talking to you about strengthening your own politics. I'm not saying don't use hatred. I'm talking only about a specific instance of hatred that is based on stereotypes. And I'm not saying I'm right. I'm saying, perhaps this can be considered.
 
Five: This is not empirically tested.
 
True. I have not tested this empirically. This is just a theory now.
 
Six: This is sealioning.

Consider whether any friendly, meta-level discussion should be labeled as sealioning.

Seven: This post can be used by our political opponents as fodder to strengthen their politics against us.

I suppose. I'm sorry for posting this. But it's a thought I had.


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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Why Politics isn't for the Honest

This is not a pessimistic post. I'll explain why honest people can't do well in politics. And then I'll also urge honest people to be political.

When I say politics isn't for the honest, I mean that the identity of a politician isn't for the honest. They cannot win elections on their own. They cannot sway votes on their own. They can't do anything in politics on their own.

Why? Because the country is full of human beings who are irrational and we have a first-past-the-vote voting system.

Winston Churchill probably never said that “the best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Nevertheless, that's true. And it doesn't require you to have contempt for others to agree with that statement. You just have to remember that we are all humans and that we are all bound by cognitive biases.

We stereotype, we assume, we guess, we make up, we are swayed by public perception, we change our stances under social pressure, we are biased, and we have cognitive blind spots. We are all irrational human beings.

When it comes to an election we choose a candidate based on our view of the world and our view of the candidates. Both of these are colored by the biases I mentioned above.

Here's where the first-past-the-vote system comes in. The vast majority of people won't vote for a candidate they think do not have any chance to win. "Why waste your vote on a candidate who will anyhow lose?" The elections are therefore already reduced to a two-party (or a three-party) election.

You can still start a new party and enter the three-party race (like AAP did in Delhi). It requires entering the consciousness of voters at large and, mostly, at once. AAP could do this because of the wide media coverage of India Against Corruption. Another way of attaining this kind of prominence is to split off from an existing party. In essence, being in people's minds is the first step to being a potential winner.

Now that is already our cognitive biases in action. And at this point the line between irrationality and reality blurs too. For, how do you do governance if you don't have the trust of the people. Why should people trust a random party based on their manifesto?

Trust. Trust could thus be considered the defining force of winning election. And trust is at the edge of what is called irrational. We make up trust in politics based on the circumstances. If we feel like there is a threat of war, we will trust the person/party which appears like it has the ability to win a war to lead us. If we feel like there is a threat of breakdown of social order, we will trust the person/party which appears like it has the ability to keep the society together to lead us. Our trust depends a lot on how we feel.

This is where politics becomes a game in which honest people have no chance. You can manipulate people's feelings in two ways - you can change their threat perceptions and you can change their perception about the ability of different political candidates to handle those threats.

How you feel about the how big a problem terrorism, war, global warming, fascism, or sedition is depends a lot on what you've been fed by the world and how rational you are. For example, let me take me. I am a person who avoids news. I do so because I believe that news is about sensationalization of the trivial matters because they're newsworthy. For me, matters like terrorism are quantitatively less important than matters like road safety. Whereas it is totally possible that another person looks at road safety as an unavoidable problem but terrorism as unwarranted, avoidable threats to the psyche of our nation. The perception of what the largest threats we face are can be manipulated by manipulating the media that people consume - be it news media or social media.

The next kind of manipulation is one that people routinely employ all around, but is the bread and butter of politicians. Image management. For a politician to succeed they need to project an image of leadership that suits the "largest threats" that we are facing. Image is ridiculously irrational. For example, let us look at very personal things that are all part of the image - clothing, fashion, colors, facial hair, hairstyle, make-up, facial expression, gait, speed of walking, phone, spectacles, ... Everything that you can think of affects the "image" one projects.

Let us take the biggest example in front of us. In 2007, 5 years after Godra, Karan Thapar did an interview of Narendra Modi. Narendra was not so much of an adult at that time and ended the interview at 3 minutes because Karan started with questions about Narendra's murderer image. A lot of people don't know what happened after that. In another video, Karan talks about it. The interesting bit is that Narendra looked at that 3 minute interview many many times afterwards to learn from their mistakes and do better. Maybe Narendra gave up and stopped doing interviews instead. But the fact is that playing to their strengths allows Narendra to project an image of a strong leader.

Every successful politician has done this. They've managed the perception they create in the mind of their voters. Barack Obama has done and wrote about it. It maybe interesting to know about how Michelle Obama in the first few speeches about Barack's presidential campaign was being perceived as an angry person and immediately course corrected with softer speeches (and clothing choices). Rahul Gandhi must be trying really hard to do this after Narendra knocked down Rahul Gandhi's image.

That brings us to another point. It is not just your image that you manage in politics. You also manage others' image. You tell voters how to look at other candidates. You make them look like fools, you win.

Now why does all of this matter for the honest politician? Can't they project an image of their own honesty and succeed? Not as easy. If you are an honest politician and if you believe that terrorism is not as big a problem as global warming or road safety, and you take that idea honestly to a set of voters who believe strongly that terrorism needs to be curbed, that is pretty much the end of your political career.

You will have to bend the truth, if not lie. And bending truth has its limits. There is only so much you can accomplish with bent truths, especially if your opponents are fighting with lies.

But politics is so important that you can't give up just because you don't have a chance to win. What should honest people do about politics?

First, they have to realize how irrationality rules politics. Then they have to use that knowledge to guide how they approach people. They need to turn the irrationality on its head and make it question the lies. 

They might have avenues other than politics to reach powerful and influential positions where it is easier for them to sway people's perceptions. 

Maybe they can be excellent researchers and use research as a political tool. Maybe they can be good artists. Or programmers. Or doctors. Or teachers. Or anything! Anyone who does their thing well gets some power and influence. And they can use those to sway irrational voters to things that matter.

Politics is for everyone. And honest people have their own options.


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Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Giving up Ideological Purism

I used to be a purist. I would think that socialism is better than capitalism and therefore I should myself shun everything to do about capitalism. I would think that free software is better than proprietary software and use only free software everywhere. And so many other "principled" positions. Then a couple of things happened.

First, life became unlivable. There was nothing worth doing because everything broke some or the other ideology I had. I can't start a business because it is not socialism. I can't put tweets and try to get followers because I am against the concept of popularity and getting more followers. I wouldn't make videos to upload to YouTube because Google owns YouTube. I can't build an app because it wouldn't solve a pressing real world problem. I wouldn't get a vaccine till all people would get it. I can't do this, I can't do that. I couldn't do anything.

It is not that I didn't see contradictions then. I am living in a comfortable house in Bangalore. Where's the equity in that? By my logic I had to give up all my savings and live like the poorest person. But I wouldn't do that.

In some way or the other I was thinking pragmatically. I realized that free software puts software above humans and rethought it. Even came up with feminist software. I had been thinking about putting privilege to use. I had just about figured out that good capitalism and good socialism are almost indistinguishable.

But the straw that broke the camel's back is the vaccine issue. There were many reasons I was against getting myself vaccinated - the undemocratic institution of CoWIN, the lack of transparency in approving vaccine for usage, and most important of all the fact that lots of people were not getting vaccine. There were many compelling reasons to get vaccinated too - that there is good science for vaccines in general and these vaccines specifically, that I could be putting others' life in danger, that I would be of no use to anyone if I'm dead.

But ideological purism works in mysterious ways. I had chosen that the morally right way was to avoid the vaccine. And my brain would come up with various reasons on why I was right.

But on one fine day it clicked in my head. I was indeed being stupid. I told Swathi that I'll start looking for places where vaccine was available. And by the purest of coincidence, a friend from a private company asked me the next day whether I needed a jab in their company's private drive.

That's when it all came together for me. Ideological purism is an unsustainable and self-contradicting position. The only way human beings can live life in the real world is through pragmatism. And pragmatism doesn't have to be lazy and directionless. Pragmatism is the way of figuring out the good and bad of capitalism, the good and bad of socialism, and the good and bad of all the ways to organize economic activity and to figure out a way to work it out in your life towards your goals of a better world. Pragmatism is the way of figuring out how to use proprietary software, free software, and all kinds of software for making things happen.

I also figured out I was being lazy. By doing all of these fights against twitter, CoWIN, proprietary software, health inequity, authoritarianism, meritocracy, and so on in my small world, I was not doing anything. I was just sitting in a corner of the world complaining about all this. Sure I was a member of Indian Pirates, Free Software Community of India, etc. I was doing things like organizing calls and camps. I was mentoring people, etc. But all this felt like running away. I was not engaging in a powerful way.

One of the reasons was the idea that lasting change requires converting people this way from the outside. That we can't live in the existing systems and change them.

I still don't have an answer to that. I don't have an answer to how I can change the system from within.

But I'm tired of being outside the dominant systems in all fields. I'm tired of swimming the other way. Let me try swimming this way.

It is selfish. But hey, we are all stardust anyhow. Let's see what happens?


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Is Science The Only Way of Knowing?

 This is continuation of a debate from YouTube.

The statement that "Science is the only way of knowing" is correct. But it is also arrogant.

The definition of knowledge that we are working with is "justified belief of independent rational observers". What I argue in the video is that independent rational observers can come to different justified beliefs when it comes to social science where the observations are made about human behavior. I gave the examples of economics, politics. That when two independent rational observers look at the "market" one comes up with socialism and the other with capitalism. That there is no way for science to figure out which of them is the "truth". And that this lack of convergence on one justified belief is what makes the argument "science is the only way of knowing" break down.

But using "logic" (which can also be called scientific method) is the only way for humans to know anything, and that's right. Those who defy the commonly accepted "logic"s are considered psychotic by human beings.

Where is the arrogance? The arrogance is in claiming that "science is the only way of knowing" when it is clear that there are very severe limitations for science when it comes to the field of social science. A society cannot be subjected to controlled experiments. What science requires to arrive at the truth, to "know" how a human society will function is a set of observations from which one can draw conclusions. It is impossible for human beings to perform this set of observations in the way that's required to correctly draw such conclusions and "know" the human society. And that is the fundamental limitation of science.

To claim that theoretically it is possible to isolate all the variables and test a hypothesis about human beings - that's useless at best, and politically inappropriate at the worst.

In the video I try to keep physics, chemistry, etc from the uncertainty about truth that I introduce. But in response to the video Pirate Bady brought up the argument that 'single' truth does not exist in even physics. That quantum mechanics, for example, has infinite truths with different probabilities.

I don't know quantum physics. I have no perfect idea how exactly Schrödinger's cat is a paradox. Which is why I omitted talking about this in the video.

But if physics is also observer dependent, then that's another argument which weakens the idea that "science is the only way of knowing". That multiple truths can exist and we won't be able to come to a single truth translates to the idea that - "we cannot know certain things". 

From that it can be argued that if there is a way to know it is only through science and consequently, "science is the only way of knowing". And that's a big if clause.

If there is a way to know, science is the only way

I can stand by that statement.

Because it admits that there are times where we cannot "know". Be it quantum physics, be it politics or public policy. That's a humble statement. That's a statement which accepts the limits of science. That is a statement which gives space for "other" ways of "knowing".

The only argument against giving space to these "other" ways is that it can lead to irrational thinking in human beings. And I think that's the argument Dr Viswanathan makes too. And I think that's also the reason why science has not been able to win people over despite so many accomplishments it has had. That science fails to acknowledge what is fundamentally human. That science, in its ivory tower, arrogantly believes that all that the world needs is science. 

If only more rational thinkers admitted that there are times when humans can't know and that science has no role in such times, we can then start negotiating with irrational people and push them to use science in all the places that matters.

Yes, that means that we will have to tell them that science cannot tell them whether there exists a God or not. But that's okay. By accepting a humble position like that, you make science more welcoming to all humans. It is by being arrogant that you drive them away.


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Saturday, May 22, 2021

Why Researchers Who Care About Equity Should Use Zotero (and Not Mendeley)

If you are a researcher, chances are that you write papers. And if you write papers there is a good reason for you to use a reference manager (also called citation manager?). If you use a reference manager and you care about equity, there is a good reason why you should use Zotero.

Why use reference managers?

Because the publication systems used by most of your journals are (intentionally) ancient. The internet allows usage of hyperlinks on any word in your article. But the academic society is still worried about putting references in an order at the end of the article. And every journal has their own citation "style" (as if the font style of the journal name matters in the quality of the reference). While all of this is part of a system that wants to continue making creation of knowledge the exclusive privilege of an elite circle, sometimes you might have to be a part of that system. And you're better off handing to a software the tedious (and useless) effort of keeping track of your references and arranging them in an order and in the right "style".

Also because when you're doing literature review you might want to keep track of a *lot* of references and you might want to tag them, group them, share with others, etc.

So, use a reference manager and never copy paste references manually.

Why not Mendeley?

You might look at the options and you might see this software called "Mendeley". And you might think, "Ah, this looks like a good fit for my use case."

But did you know Mendeley is owned by Elsevier? Do you know how in the age of the internet Elsevier and many other publishers continue to charge people for publishing and for reading? Do you think that these are reasonable charges levied in return of some great effort from their part? If you think so, you have literally no idea how the internet works. 

See you are reading this blog. It took me zero money to publish this post. And that cost would not have changed a bit if I had a 100 references at the end of this post. This gets published under a creative commons license and that didn't change the cost from zero either. Once I publish it, I will share the link to it in social media and other places. And people can add comment under it. Remember that most journals don't pay peer reviewers anything for reviewing posts either.

So that should really make you wonder what the process of publication in journals are about. My philosophy about journals are simple. Journals give you credentials and privilege. So you publish on them. And the academic society considers publication in journals as the yardstick to measure your merit. And that vicious cycle perpetuates.

But I understand your plight. Just because the system is horrible you can't avoid the system. And you're condemned to the life of a 20th century academician. Fine. Publish. But don't support Elsevier, Wiley, American Chemical Society, etc. 

And don't use Mendeley which is proprietary and owned by Elsevier.

Use Zotero.

Zotero is free and open source software. I use free to mean "freedom" as in "free speech". Zotero is released in a GNU Affero General Public License. Which means that all the source code of Zotero is available to anyone who wants to modify it, add new features, etc. 

Newton said "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants". If knowledge was like proprietary software, Newton would have said "I couldn't have seen further because the Giants had a license agreement that said that I should close my eyes if I were to stand on their shoulders" and we wouldn't have heard about Newton either.

Open knowledge lets everyone stand on the shoulders of each other and see farther. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) lets new programmers write better software by standing on older software. Zotero is that.

If you care for equity, you should start from where you are.  If you use and encourage Mendeley, nVivo, and so on, you are ceding control to a proprietary ecosystem where the rules are laid down by the software "owners". If you use FOSS like Zotero, Taguette, R, PSPP, etc you are strengthening software that is collectively owned by human kind. And you are making life better for everyone.


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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

How To Stay Sane Online in 7 Simple Steps

The sheer vastness of information online can disorient some people. Fake news and hate makes it even harder for them. These techniques are what I personally use to keep my mind "blissful" despite what is going around me. And yet I get to enjoy all the goodness of internet too.

#1: Be ruthless in cutting down

You simply cannot let everything in. The internet is almost a billion people creating content every single day. And you are but one tiny human. It is impossible to follow everyone, it is impossible to subscribe to every channel. Cut down ruthlessly. Curate your life to exactly what you need and nothing more. Make your garden your own.

#2: Use mute and block liberally

Muting and blocking are tools designed to protect you. Use them! Block people who push unwanted things on to your face. Block them if they amplify hate. Block them if they give attention to attention seekers. Block them if they don't understand how fake news spreads and are complicit. Block them if they are lying. Block them if they're pushing their own image. Block them if their politics is that of selling fear. Block them if they sensationalize. If blocking is impossible (due to reasons), use mute. Prune weed from your garden.

#3: Unfollow, unsubscribe

There are so many platforms and so many content creators. You probably started following someone years ago when you were a different person. Don't let your past hold you back. If you are subscribed to someone whom you wouldn't subscribe to today, unsubscribe! You have grown, but the people you're listening to haven't? Stop listening to them and start listening to new people. Don't stay connected with someone just because you went to school with them. Break connections. Create new connections.

#4: Deactivate

Some platforms simply are not for you. There are a thousand reasons not to have a Facebook account. TikTok exists only because most human beings are interested in sex. Deactivate and delete what doesn't help you.

#5: Avoid news

There is a superb essay by Rolf Dobelli about news. Read it. News is like sugar. Unhealthy, toxic, and unnecessary. If you are using platforms to keep abreast with news, you're doing it wrong in two ways - platforms aren't the best way to listen to news, and listening to news isn't the best way to spend your time.

#6: Read books

Books are serious. Books take time and effort. Books take research. Read books.

#7: Use tools that give you control

There are technologies like web feeds that put you in control. Use them. Take control.


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Monday, March 22, 2021

Organizations, Like People, Have Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Don't Cook Your Meals

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

I find cooking boring

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

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

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

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

Mass production of cheap and healthy food should be a reality

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

Zomato/Swiggy etc are a problem because of two reasons

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

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

Hiring the service of a maid is good for many reasons

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

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

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

Cooking can do with a lot of innovation

Here's a recent talk I enjoyed watching.

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

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


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Sunday, January 17, 2021

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


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