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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