Personal Opinion, Philosophy, Psychology

On Happiness

Happiness, in my opinion, is overrated. I’m not even sure whether it is a real thing. Since life is a continuous process of struggle until the end, it doesn’t make sense when it’s possible, if at all, to reach this state of ultimate emotional equilibrium we call happiness.

Asking “how can I be happy?” is, in my opinion, asking the wrong question. We have no choice but to anticipate and tackle all the painful moments in our lives; we have to expect disappointments, betrayals, sadness, death of loved ones, illnesses and trauma we can get affected by and so on. If tackling is not possible, we may even need to accept them, much like we have to accept death at some point. This much is certain, and we all know it pretty well that we cannot avoid them.

We can’t be “happy” in the romantic sense, as often portrayed by numerous motivational speakers, life coaches or “Gurus”. Most of them present the concept as a holy grail that every one of us should always covet. I have now come to realize that all this is bogus.

This is much like the fact that we cannot realistically establish a social utopia: twentieth-century romantic nationalist or communist or even “democratic” endeavors which tried to do so, failed miserably – at the cost of many human lives. Similarly, in my opinion, romantic conceptions of happiness as portrayed in many popular books, novels, music and movies have skewed our ideas for living a realistic life and have in the process, ruined many individuals, families and relationships. We are told to imagine and pursue a certain arbitrary end called “happiness”, which in fact is always out of our grasp the more we reach out for it. And reality not meeting our idealistic expectations, stresses us out – many a times to the detriment of our fragile mental health. Pursuing happiness perverts our outlook on life, as we look at other people’s momentary satisfactions as being “happy” relative to our momentary dissatisfactions which we deem as being  “unhappy”. This much is not so hard to understand if we think deeply.

Learning to cope with life, recognizing aspects of life that are important for us in the long run (like family and friends), and engaging in activities or hobbies that demand, but not exhaust, our enthusiasm (doing what you enjoy doing persistently without regret), are some of the means to reduce existential stress or anxiety. But again, at the back of our minds, we do need to be ready for the possible unpleasant moments of pain, failure, dissatisfactions – which even these coping strategies may occasionally bring forth.

Being realistic, is to accept the imperfections that mandatorily come attached with existence and to ceaselessly struggle against them – much like Sisyphus against the boulder uphill. Being idealistic is to try to escape from them irresponsibly, by imagining unrealistic targets such as a state of happiness or utopia. By educating ourselves about human nature and to be both emotionally and rationally intelligent – can boost our ability to cope. Now we just need to repeat this process ad infinitum. And all this while, we should completely forget about ultimate happiness. Because the more we think about ultimate happiness, the more we become unhappy at proximity. This is also one core principle of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) sessions provided by clinical psychologists, which is very helpful in reinforcing coping abilities in troubled people.

And that’s the red pill – we need to learn to cope, not to be happy.

Egalitarianism, Philosophy, Technology

On Freeing up Time

(A 21st century add-on to Bertrand Russell’s famous essay ‘On Idleness’)

I read Bertrand Russell’s famous philosophical paper “On Idleness” and was taken aback by the man’s prescience and insight. None of which would have come without his impressive clarity of thought. He made a compelling and everlasting case for working less and living life more. The core thesis of the paper being: we need to work less, in order to amplify the subjective “meaning” as well as the objective “quality” of all our lives – without actually being complacent. He argues that work has been historically declared as a virtue mostly by the ruling few, because they seemed to have enjoyed their idleness, gifted to them by their privilege or birthright. Those who didn’t work were vilified and those who worked were hailed as important units of society – just so that the status quo could be maintained to continue the means of production.

Back in the day (and even now to some extent) only few people enjoyed the fruits of the work done by the many – money and hence plenty of time for hobbies. Time to create as well as enjoy music, literature, art; or to document history, to form philosophies, to be able to learn about science and enjoy the luxury of cutting edge technology first hand and so on. See for yourselves – Mozart, Beethoven, Descartes, Montaigne – all enjoyed some sort of privilege that allowed them to be talented and creative maestros in their respective fields (them having lived before or during the first wave of industrialization). After the first wave of industrialization had took hold – we could see plenty of scholars and artists who rose from being sons of the working men to becoming significant intellectuals and underdog artists or virtuosos. Fast forward to today – majority of the world’s top billionaires did not inherit their wealth, but rather created them by capitalising on their newfangled ideas. Although Russell’s initial paragraphs have a Marxist overtone, he doesn’t at all make the case for overthrowing the ruling class and taking charge of the means of production – his take is more empirical than Marx’s purely ideological one.

He argues (in early 20th century) that since the industrial revolution had allowed many to move from farms and live in the cities and work in factories, they may not have had more time to enjoy than the owners of the factories, but nonetheless they still had more time to enjoy life than the farmers and peasants of old or from the countryside. Factory-workers could enjoy some days off their work without having to worry about starving their children relative to the farmers of those days – who had to constantly ponder about the success of their unstable crops for survival. People could buy ready-made products directly from shops and didn’t have to waste time to make them on their own. They could divert the time spent knitting to more productive works like reading books or pursuing hobbies or going to a picnic. Russell argues in this way, how new technology will enable even the common people to better enjoy their lives by giving everyone some free time than their forebears. And this, he argues, was a continuous process which would better itself so long as progress wasn’t to be halted by destructive wars or calamities. He makes a utilitarian case for progress and the benefits technology can provide the human race as a whole.

Today we can realize, with the advent of the information age and possibly the new industrial revolution – the age of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning – that Russel couldn’t have been more correct! The talk of the globe today is about such self-thinking machines taking away jobs and people being unemployed and thus possibly miserable. This mindset, I believe, comes from the same old practice of establishing work (by which I mean mundane drudgery) as a virtue in itself. Much work people do today is those that they do not like. The very reason we make employees compete for “employee of the month” is to try and boost their mindless productivity (banal things like who processed the most accounts and which salesman sold the most number of toilet cleaners and so on). Much of the stress and dissatisfaction with life today comes from the fact that many are not satisfied by their work. They have to work for others, they have to work in times unsuitable for their wishes, they have to disregard the wellbeing of their spouse or children, they have to sacrifice their desire to learn new skills, and if they need to take a time of for their health – the inevitable fear of losing their jobs. Blue, white or red – all ‘collar’ work are done to serve a pre-supposed greater “purpose”. Mindless and uncreative work have become such an integral part of our lives for millennia since the agricultural revolution, that we even have plenty of well known adage such as “Be the first in the field and last to the couch” or “Diligence is the mother of good luck” or “A cat with gloves, catches no mice” and so on.

When the prospects of machines taking over jobs comes up everytime, widespread existential anxieties ensue. People think about their future, or the future of their kids – because that is a basic human common ground that should be guaranteed to everyone in modern civilization. And agreeing with Russell, I do think people should be compensated – just to be idle. I’m vouching for the Universal Basic Income or some kind of social guarantee of survival as ends, whatever the means. Because as efficient and self-learning machines take up much of our mindless jobs – we will probably have more time to enjoy our lives. There might be a concern about complacency, but that can be dispelled by tracing facts from history. More common people today enjoy the luxury of travel, good food, art, music, entertainment, multiple hobbies than ever before. What was something only aristocrats would’ve dreamt of before, is accessible to the common “peasants” of today. And the more prosperous a nation – more idle time their citizens can enjoy. A simple scanning of the facts is enough to support this claim. And the trend is only growing. Rich countries divert their sweatshops to poorer ones because of cheap labor. Citizens in prosperous countries enjoy clothes sewn by Bangladeshi workers and gadgets assembled by an ex-farmer in Shenzhen, China. People in places like Japan, France, Britain and the United States can enjoy more time in their lives because some people are trying to make ends meet in poorer countries.

This is where Russell’s argument in favor of technology is so important and ageless. This wave of industrial revolution that we are facing today, is for the very people living in places like China, India, and Bangladesh – so that they, just like the people that they work for – can enjoy the globalized world in their own time. But of course, if everyone is idle when machines take over everything, who is to pay for the people? That is indeed a black-and-white way to look at things. As much as new technologies will take away traditional jobs, they will be creating more than we can imagine. Much of those jobs will be less mindless and require more of our cognition than physical labor. And in terms of cognition – those requiring more divergent intellect from our part than convergent. In short: we will be paid for being more creative than for being repetitive. We will be paid for our ideas, for our art, for music. We are already seeing some effects – independent “Youtubers”, social media “influencers”, spotify “artists” and so on. These are the initial cohort of people who have already entered the “new market” of self-employment. They are generating revenues in such a way that even indices such as GDP or GNP cannot properly account for. People are establishing startups backed by new and innovative ideas – which require more people for their creativity than for their drudgery – the latter being done entirely by machines. Boring jobs like sweeping toilets, cleaning the subway tracks, building houses or cleaning the dog-poop – all will be taken over by machines – and it is ever more likely now to envision such a future than in Russell’s time. It’s only a matter of time.

And just as Russell argued for safety-nets back in his time, contemporary people have argued for likewise – in the form of Universal Basic Income. We have to acknowledge that not everyone will be divergent enough to be able to feed themselves through creative works, so we need a safety-net. What if prosperous governments (or organizations or conglomerates, whatever be the means) provided free basic annual income to everyone, unconditionally – so that they can get all the basic necessities for basic living? It is shown through many research done by economists and mathematicians, that if people do not have to think about survival every now and then – they tend to be more productive if not creative. Just compare Sweden and Somalia to get a perspective. Some people may become complacent or spend it on drugs or useless things, but most would still choose to work – to add meaning to their lives. And their only purpose for working would be to meet their surplus needs and not basic ones which are already guaranteed. They will thus be able to enjoy more of their time in that regard, spend more time with their children, contribute more to the family or community, can be freer to fight for causes they believe in and be more politically aware and active. Best of all – the more idle people become, basic needs guaranteed, the more they will choose to educate themselves or opt for skills-trainings – enough to improve the quality of their lives and perhaps even thought.

Experiments on UBI are being conducted across various regions in Scandinavia or Canada (and perhaps even India in the near future), and the results are being awaited as I write this essay. So it may be some time before this can be agreed upon by the global community. But this much is sure, if not the UBI, then maybe some other idea for a safety-net, because that will surely come into demand, no matter the size of the opposition. Because history has shown us that weaker ideas have always failed before utilitarian ones, when economics of progress is in the driving seat. If such ideas become successful then perhaps we might as well need to modify proverbs such as “Give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” to “Give a man a fish every year, and he may teach himself to fish, or if not – may give you a beautiful painting for your living room.”  

Many people around the world today get angry at Indian or Chinese tourists because of their seemingly bad manners (some may even consider Europeans ill-mannered in some parts of the world – they wipe their bottoms with just paper!), but I wish to not moralize on proper methods of tourism myself. I’m rather delighted with the fact that there are Indian and Chinese people spending their free time and surplus money – touring the world! Because remember, that just about a decade ago, even using the terms “Chinese Tourists” or “Indian Tourists” would have been considered a joke!

And owing Russell a big thanks for his clear vision of human necessities and of the future, I’d like to end with an important saying I heard a random anonymous engineer give out in a random documentary about progress – “Technology is the answer, so what’s the question?”. To that I may as well want to add “Technology and cooperation is the answer, so what’s the question?”

Rationalism

A student’s encounter.

Students are still beaten in Nepali schools……

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So, turns out I was not the only one who was enraged and wrote something about the day (read here).

What follows next is what a student felt and wrote after those dreadful early minutes of a school day.

Today, 28th of November 2018, after I arrived at school, at around 10:00 we were announced that we would have an assembly. I along with my class joined the assembly where other fellow students had already settled. We did our morning prayer as usual and the vice-principal of our school spoke few words to the teachers in a little aggressive and high pitch.

He told the teachers to strictly check their students if they were in proper uniform or not. He even said that it was teachers’ fault that we were not obeying them and teachers are to be strict instead of being friendly with us.

At the same time…

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Nepal, Personal Opinion

France wasn’t built in a day…..

France wasn’t built in a day…” * 

This is an obvious fact that everyone can grasp; yet I’m really surprised by the pessimism of even the educated people who say “Nepal is doomed”.

Why? I ask them. Most reply that we are being ruled by thugs and are not really a democracy but rather a plutocracy. We’d rather have a strong autocrat like Lee-Kwan Yew or maybe even Gyanendra himself, they say, and we haven’t experienced progress of any kind.

Then I reflect upon the country’s history. How long has it been that we’ve become a republic? 10 years? And how long since we’ve had our first, elected, constitutional government? Not even a year?

Not even a year of stable governance and we already want a strongman. Is that rash or just immensely short-sighted? And is there a guarantee that a strong authoritarian leader that we may get – will out of serendipity become a benevolent one like Lee Kwan Yew? We could very well get our own version of Gaddafi or Saddam. Don’t tell me if you’ll miss democracy then.

Of course there is corruption, of course there are instances of nepotism and of course the laws aren’t perfect and neither is the constitution. Progress isn’t utopian. Struggle will always ensue in the path of progress. Stability, development, good education, quality of life – all these will take time. We may have immensely corrupt politicians today, but with time and a newer generation the person in that position will become less corrupt, the next one thereafter may not be at all. No matter how much those in power tend to ignore problems at present, they cannot stay that way forever because demand or outrage will ensue, values will change and people will want progress so much that there will be little room left for wrongdoing. But for that we should constantly be voicing our concerns or demands – never being complacent nor unjustly pessimistic.

Here’s what Noam Chomsky has to say about realistic optimism. “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope.”

Imagine if we do not have democracy – we will have no right left to even voice about change, let alone take responsibility to see it happen. If not for democracy, the vicious cycle of illegitimate plutocrats or autocrats would have kept strengthening to the point that we may never would’ve been able to resist them. Power cannot be trusted to a concentrated few. Even if it seems imperfect to start with, it is always better used when divided. All the struggles, all the lives lost – all for nothing. So we need to throw away the poisonous cultural and political pessimism that we brew in our minds because we read too much headlines and use too much twitter – but not facts, statistics or critical thought. So to even opine that the country would be better ruled by undemocratic forces instead – is morally irresponsible!

Steven Pinker summarizes in Enlightenment now: “A liberal democracy is a precious achievement. Until the messiah comes, it will always have problems, but it’s better to solve those problems than to start a conflagration and hope that something better arises from the ashes and bones. By failing to take note of the gifts of modernity, [unjust] social critics poison voters against responsible custodians and incremental reformers who can consolidate the tremendous progress we have enjoyed and strengthen the conditions that will bring us more.”

Think about it Nepal……

 

* [I used France instead of Rome (unlike the original adage ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’), in the opening quotation, because I think the former represents democratic and humanistic ideals better than Rome would. I’m not, however, considering some of the notable heinous foreign policies of the aforementioned state for the sake of brevity. Some may also point out that France was also ruled by strongmen such as Napoleon; I’d like to highlight that we have been as well – on two occasions after 1951 – but nonetheless in both nations the call for democracy was too great to suppress.]

Personal Opinion, Philosophy, Technology

A vision for my city

I’m not an engineer by profession, but I find cities of any kind very fascinating. And exploring videos and maps of cities and playing city-building simulation games used to be my favorite past-time (before I was caught up in some career work).

I’m a fan, especially of cities with less horizontal sprawl and more vertical elevations – such cities take up less space, cut transportation time significantly, and save energy and water distribution costs drastically. And of-course: I particularly have a crush on well-designed cities that have an organized mass-transit system, my personal favorites: the city of Kobe in Japan (Trains everywhere!!!!) and the city of Medellin in Columbia (Cable cars!!!!).

Cities are multi-dimensional, that is – despite them being established mostly in a top-down manner (like planned cities of Barcelona or Manchester or Seoul or Singapore), they can also be improved via a bottom-up approach (Rio de Janerio, Brasil or Medellin).

By bottom-up approach I mean – to improve, with minimum demolition, cities that are already overcrowded and seemingly unmanageable; and to give them their own unique identity along with improving its citizens’ overall well-being. The city of Rio and Medellin have done it in a uniquely Latin-American way. They improved upon their slums (Favelas) that were already there, without destroying them (now some of them are crime-free and pose as tourist attractions), they regulated housing in other areas and made it affordable so newer immigrants need not further expand the slums, and they established a mass transit system unique to the topography that could carry their citizens efficiently, for low cost, connecting the thriving city-center to the developing Favelas on the hills: via spacious cable cars!!!

When I look at my own city of Kathmandu valley, I see no alternative to the bottom-up approach. We simply cannot afford the top-down approach anymore – there are too many heritage sites and monuments and people live everywhere in a haphazard manner. Everything is jam-packed and we surely don’t want more dust. We simply cannot afford to press the ‘reset’ button for this city. Innovation is a key figure for bottom-up approaches and we all know it can bring us around traditional problems just as in Latin America – without the need for destroying anything of significant value.

It’s a shame that in my city they had to destroy historical landmarks such as “Sohrakhutte” just for the simple task of expanding the road by a few meters. There is also another talk of building satellite-cities outside ring-roads by destroying historical Newari villages and towns. These are examples of a top-down approach – where an authority figure (government or a company) have complete authority and control in development projects, with little regard for the citizens themselves. Top-down approaches are more suited for building newer cities such as Navi-Mumbai, or Singapore or Songdo-city outside Seoul; all of them being built from scratch out of land reclamation or on top of wastelands. In older cities with historical significance or over-crowding, only the bottom-up approach makes sense. And let’s be honest, regardless of the federalization the the country, Kathmandu valley will still have significant influx of people for many years into the future.

So one example of a bottom-up approach to improve upon the aesthetics of Kathmandu city could be by completely doing away with cables or wires (many cities around the world have shifted to wireless or CDMA and we can get rid of wires in due time as well). Just getting rid of obsolete data transfer systems would free up much needed spaces, exception only being for electric cables. Another method would be to employ smart transit systems requiring minimum infrastructure – such as relatively cheap-to-build (compared to underground metro) yet large enough cable-cars to connect commuters from dense areas like Sitapaila or Budhanilkantha to somewhere near Line-chaur or Ratna-Park. To aid rush-hour traffic, we can instead turn towards local shareable vehicle technologies (Tootle is one example) which would allot an idle vehicle not just for one person – but for any going in the same direction for a small price, as long as there’s space inside. We don’t always have to widen the roads, as we can learn from old cities in Europe – we can restrict vehicles to promote alternate methods of transport within set areas.

Even if we just improve upon the sidewalks and crossings, many people would opt to walk short-distances instead of using vehicles (which we currently do with micro-buses, even to travel a distance of only a kilometer). We can replace the clutter of small-size buses or micro-buses with bigger scheduled buses in a way Sajha yatayat are doing. Big buses free up traffic by fitting in more people per square meter on the road. Instead of allotting massive budget and energy for constructing underground metro systems (which would also require a lot of demolition) we could opt for skylines such as heavy-capacity monorail systems which occupy less space and can cut across dense areas of the city with minimal invasion (Like those being modeled or tested in Mumbai, Bangalore and Guanzhou). And these are to be connected with each other – such that a person living in Koteshwor could ride a monorail upto Lagankhel and then switch to either a bus to go into the city or a rope-way to get to Lamatar. We need loops of transit systems. And all these can be approached only by means of a considerate bottom-up approach, not really top-down. A bottom-up approach also saves us more money and time for construction compared to top-down ones. The philosophy should be to turn Kathmandu, not into New York or Osaka (because we are never going to achieve that in a reasonable way), but into a livable, more efficient Kathmandu.

Of course these are just my amateurish assumptions and it will be harder to implement these changes in practise and people do exist in our country who know more about this than I do. But we just ought encourage ourselves to think outside the box once in a while. We could also benefit from sending our technical people to train in Latin america or china where innovative concepts for both new and old cities are being explored on a regular basis. We need to learn from the people who got it right, so that like them, we can also pull our city out of the dust and into the 21st century.

And last but not the least, I think we need to participate ourselves, as citizens, for the betterment of this promising city.

Science

A TIME FOR MATH, A TIME TO KILL [An Excerpt]

This is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of the book: Incognito: The secret lives of the Brain, written by David Eagleman – The Neuroscientist. He talks about the Trolley-problem from the Neuroscience perspective. I found the dichotomy between the ‘rational’ and the ’emotional’ aspects of our brains pretty compelling.

“The battle between the rational and emotional systems is brought to light by what philosophers call the trolley dilemma. Consider this scenario: A trolley is barreling down the train tracks, out of control. Five workers are making repairs way down the track, and you, a bystander, quickly realize that they will all be killed by the trolley. But you also notice that there is a switch nearby that you can throw, and that will divert the trolley down a different track, where only a single worker will be killed. What do you do? (Assume there are no trick solutions or hidden information.)

If you are like most people, you will have no hesitation about throwing the switch: it’s far better to have one person killed than five, right? Good choice.

Now here’s an interesting twist to the dilemma: imagine that the same trolley is barreling down the tracks, and the same five workers are in harm’s way—but this time you are a bystander on a footbridge that goes over the tracks. You notice that there is an obese man standing on the footbridge, and you realize that if you were to push him off the bridge, his bulk would be sufficient to stop the train and save the five workers. Do you push him off? If you’re like most people, you bristle at this suggestion of murdering an innocent person. But wait a minute. What differentiates this from your previous choice? Aren’t you trading one life for five lives? Doesn’t the math work out the same way? What exactly is the difference in these two cases?

Philosophers working in the tradition of Immanuel Kant have proposed that the difference lies in how people are being used. In the first scenario, you are simply reducing a bad situation (the deaths of five people) to a less bad situation (the death of one). In the case of the man on the bridge, he is being exploited as a means to an end. This is a popular explanation in the philosophy literature. Interestingly, there may be a more brain-based approach to understand the reversal in people’s choices.

In the alternative interpretation, suggested by the neuroscientists Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, the difference in the two scenarios pivots on the emotional component of actually touching someone—that is, interacting with him at a close distance. If the problem is constructed so that the man on the footbridge can be dropped, with the flip of switch, through a trapdoor, many people will vote to let him drop.

Something about interacting with the person up close stops most people from pushing the man to his death. Why? Because that sort of personal interaction activates the emotional networks. It changes the problem from an abstract, impersonal math problem into a personal, emotional decision. When people consider the trolley problem, here’s what brain imaging reveals: In the footbridge scenario, areas involved in motor planning and emotion become active. In contrast, in the track-switch scenario, only lateral areas involved in rational thinking become active. People register emotionally when they have to push someone; when they only have to tip a lever, their brain behaves like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.

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Personal Opinion, Rationalism, Technology

Aid our faulty memories!

Another common problem in the Nepali medical work-space: we rely too much on our memories.
 
Our memories are faulty. We live in the age of information surplus and not in the time of William Osler or Edward Jenner. And it is completely natural to forget the massive amount of information we collect, and people shouldn’t be shamed or tested purely on failure of recall.
 
Human memory wasn’t designed to handle so much information all at once. Our brains can only store memories if they are linked to something personal, relatable or frightening. This is where mnemonics come handy when memorizing facts or concepts. But that isn’t always possible for everything in practice. Compared to most developed nations, we rely too much on memory to the point of regressive test standards and burnout.
What is important is to actually understand what charts, criteria, protocol, scores are useful for. It serves no practical purpose to memorize those charts and tables which can today be promptly accessible on procedure room walls, tablet devices or smart phones. For instance, what’s the point of memorizing scoring tables for diagnosing Lupus, if we can easily look it up on a cell phone at bed side? Sure, having a better memory will boost one’s career and will maybe be helpful in busy situations. But such individuals are outliers, and not every medical professional are blessed with super-human memory. We need to think in terms of the average medical professional. Faulty memory is also a major contributor towards medical errors which can cost actual patient lives! Even the brilliant prodigies who become great doctors or successful nurses can forget – as they too are humans!
 
We never think in terms of ‘lives saved’, or ‘mishaps prevented’ or ‘errors avoided’ in Nepal. We seldom think as a group. We only think in terms of individual success. Maybe this has to do with our poorly regulated standards and indifferent medical professional bodies. And why not? Most research work done out here is to fulfill a certain criteria for individual promotion or raise and rarely to solve actual problems. Even if research has been done with genuine intention, their findings are just shoved aside as “just another study” by those in power. Some institutions like PAHS in Patan are trying to change this dependency on human memory, but PAHS is just one institute in one part of one district! We could learn from them, but we perhaps emphasize our professional ego too much to progress. 
 
Computers obviously have a better, faster, and more accurate memory storage and recollection system. They are here to aid us, to potentiate our faulty memories, so we can instead dedicate more energy in conceptualizing and problem-solving in real time. Using smart devices at bed-side isn’t a sign of our incompetence, it’s a sign of progress if it helps us to prevent errors due to our primitive organic memories. Given that we could standardize their use at bed-side (like institute-dependent apps or webpages), I can confidently say that they will surely prove to be a great boon (and a massive relief for nurses, residents and medical students) for the field as a whole. 
But who’s going to take me seriously, I’m just a random blogger.
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Nepal, Personal Opinion, Secular Humanism

Emancipate the Enlightenment!

As I’m writing this, I’m very well aware that I should be going through my own little curriculum instead of this blog, but I have a habit of jotting down stuff instantaneously and, if I deem it’s worth it, sharing it with others. But this blog is not about me or my life, it’s about an obvious thought I had on which I really want to elaborate. It’s about higher education in this country in general.

There’s no point in regretting even the bad decisions you make in life since you can’t go back in time and right the wrong, but you definitely have a responsibility to redeem yourself or others from similar mistakes or misfortunes by trying not to put yourself in that sort of situation again, and by warning others at present or in the future. So this blog could be a useful insight for people who are, at present, in the same situation I used to be in the past. I have to say, with a heavy heart, that it was a grave mistake to have studied my undergraduate course in Nepal. However, I do think I have tried my best to compensate for the lack of diversity of ideas, absence of proper scholarly training and poor standards of scientific methodology in my medical college curricula, with amateurish self-education and a couple of online courses on research writing skills, thinking skills and professional skills albeit without any formal degree of any kind. None of which I got the opportunity to learn through my Alma mater nor through my university. Probably the most common demerit of studying in a private, non-autonomous medical school (does not include reputed public institutions).

But this blog is not just about medical education, but instead about the entire pattern of the local undergraduate system. I will also make an effort to question whether or not we should maintain technical disciplines such as medicine, engineering or law as undergraduate degrees. The blog is not meant to blame anyone directly, but instead to point out a serious problem in our education system here in Nepal (the scope of the blog focusing mainly on higher education and perhaps secondary, but not really primary education). However, we should with an open mind and honest self-reflection, be able to realize that all of us, perhaps myself included, are part of the problem.

Rigid System

If I see a fundamental flaw in our system of higher education, be it secondary, undergraduate or post-graduate, then it must be in the design and enforcement of restrictive and rigid curricula. Such is their pattern and strictness, that it is almost impossible to change subjects or streams midway through a course. Of course, I realize people will make the counter-argument of one having the responsibility to decide for themselves in due time. That makes sense, but it should also be realized that to be able to decide in that manner, students who are not really primed should have the right to receive a detailed orientation program providing an apt introduction into the system, before they have made their payment or admission. But they don’t get it.

I also realize that due to pragmatic difficulties in tackling the rampant bureaucracy, cronyism or nepotism or all at once, this arrangement may not be immediately feasible, but the troubling thing is, it looks like as if none of us are eager to solve the problem at all given the time many cohort of Nepali students have had to deal with such problems. Well, if this arrangement doesn’t fit within our system, then there should be an easier alternative, to be able to change the stream midway within the same university ecosystem. But that is not allowed without heavy consequences. Academic flexibility is simply non-existent. This, however, does not apply to technical disciplines such as medicine or engineering because since a lot of time and investment is required to train students, it would not be a viable or sustainable model if respective institutes came with a free abort switch every semester or so. But where such provisions do justice, there can be found none.

So students are stuck mostly in a rigid system of education, wherein a humanities student cannot major or minor with a science degree or a science student cannot minor in a philosophy degree (of which Nepali universities are seriously lacking in quantity and quality) and the like. As this does not apply to technical fields, such fields should be instead transcended up to the post-graduate tier. In short, to try and model them after the American system. Before addressing any rebuttals, I’d like to stress on an evident fact that high school or secondary school students are not fully capable to directly transition into a technical field without proper orientation or without undergoing the intellectual maturity-inducing buffer of undergraduate degrees. There is thus a reason why higher education in the United States of America is still the most sought after option for students globally. One general reason is that most of their universities are autonomous and allow students to discover themselves within a vast pool of career options. Another general reason is that despite the vast pool, they always have the flexible option of selecting add-on, alternate or double majors or minors, limited perhaps only by the individual’s capacity. And since they get an enormous amount of practical, theoretical and social exposure during their undergraduate years, only the surest of them will opt for the essential yet difficult technical fields as graduate studies.

Critics of this idea may dismiss it as a far-fetched and an overtly idealistic one, but if you look carefully into the history of education in the United States, they too had most vital technical education as under-graduate degrees as late into the 1980s. It was after a paradigm shifting legislation that most technical disciplines got raised into graduate-levels, allowing students time to be sure of their academic prowess during their undergraduate years. We don’t necessarily have to copy the Americans exactly. If you look at other western countries such as the United Kingdom, despite having technical disciplines included as undergraduate level degrees, prefer at least a year of internship, experience or related training and a well-guided, informed orientation before enrollment through a standardized exam. I guess that time lag provides a minimum buffer for students before painstakingly mugging up for entrance exams only to be abruptly thrown into an inescapable well of professional responsibilities.

I’m in no way saying students out here are incapable of pursuing technical studies right after secondary school. But I guess, having experienced the unfair pressure and also the irrational feeling of race to get a degree, a little bit of buffer of any kind would be more than welcome. Of course there are pretty competitive students who despite being of young age achieve any feat other international students achieve, or maybe even better. But these are outliers, and when talking about improving a system as a whole, we need to look at where the average lies. Sadly, our average is even below just ‘disappointing’ to be honest.

Mushrooming Privatization

To add to our misery, in spite of this country declaring itself a socialist-welfare democracy in the constitution, the exponential mushrooming privatization of educational institutes could probably make even the red-state libertarian capitalists in the US jealous. As we all know, decades of political instability, and lack of stable regulations allowed this nightmare to project as reality. As you walk the streets of any big city or town in Nepal, you’ll definitely come to see at least 4 poorly established, cramped up, two-storied private schools every block or so. Going further, the story of colleges are similar, just only slightly regulated as the economic incentive is relatively higher. Moving on, even a pep talk about the frequency of private medical colleges or engineering colleges in the nation is enough to elicit a big, synchronous, nation-wide face-palm.

A university is supposed to be a self-sufficient, autonomous institute dedicated solely for the purpose of furthering scholarship and broad academic progress to help the society it exists in. But despite founders of the two largest universities in the country having that vision, their visionary goals definitely did fall victim to agendas carried by sycophants and crony bureaucrats, for us to today witness a disgusting trend of capitalization of an essential sector. Universities here prefer to hand out profitable affiliations wearing thick blindfolds without regard for any standard. Private medical schools, to be specific, screen students through, mostly but not always, poorly regulated entrance exams. That too, taken actually by their affiliated university and not they themselves. And there’s no trickle of standardization at all. One year the pattern is A and another year it’s like B and the subsequent year maybe even a Z! No wonder why Dr. Govinda KC keeps up his hunger strikes for more than 20 days each time. Entrance exams have no systematic curricula, people who make questions aren’t always taken fully in confidence liable to become leakers, and the question-makers depend almost entirely on Indian question-banks, without having to waste any intellectual effort to rigorously design a scientific or standardized pool of questions. An easy way out. Similar is the case for all private engineering colleges as well. And despite all this, they expect professional standards to rise (perhaps miraculously by way of some unseen entity).

Education in Nepal is heavily influenced by the Indian system. Rote learning, point-blanc in-your-face questions that test memory more than concept, and an ever increasing race-for-life fostered by a paucity of academic space amidst an ever-growing population rate. To be fair to India, institutes there are already starting to up their standards and loosen the pressure on students due to popular and intellectual demand across many places. But our institutes show no sign of budging from the ridiculously regressive, plagiarized standards of education that go completely against human nature itself!

I honestly do not have a pragmatic solution in mind for solving this. I guess perhaps people with better experience and knowledge than myself have even more workable solutions. I am just pointing out a problem from the point of view of a dissatisfied graduate who claims to have learnt more through foreign textbooks, curricula and the internet than I should have from the local curriculum or system. To tell you a story, as we were interns, demanding a raise in our stipend as per university guidelines, we were lambasted and lampooned by the authority quite literally as “immature children going against their guardians” (I never knew we had to pay a large sum of money to get such dishonest and insecure guardians). Despite giving us the raise, the college greatly cheated us with regard to rooms for interns saying ‘internship is not for resting’. Provision of rooms for interns remains, however, till this day, strongly etched in university guidelines for private medical education. A room that pops into existence every time the university inspection arrive and disappears right after they leave. And no one ever went further to ask for the room ever, because private colleges here actually have the tyrannical ability to hold individual students as academic hostages. For instance, if you open your mouth too much, your degree can be held back or your letter of recommendation not issued, conjuring up with some obscure and bureaucratic clauses for not doing so. It’s basically career suicide to voice against your college administration. Such is the reality, as I can write now as a safely emancipated graduate.

Anti-intellectual Hierarchy

What may have happened to the world of philosophy if Socrates had never questioned the way of his teacher and his elders? Where would we be with the practice of blood-letting and operating without anesthesia had someone not doubted on their efficacy at one point in history? What would have become of this country had we not thrown out the Rana regime out of dissent? We would perhaps still be wearing long pointy masks to treat a global Bubonic plague with bear-bile and perhaps be taking our sick to the shamans to treat infections. Or perhaps be prosecuting dalits for spoiling the village well as per the first Muluki Ain set by Janga Bahadur Rana. Humans have come a long way from obsolete practices because people could doubt and improve on their doubts thereafter. As an old latin proverb goes: Where there is doubt, there is freedom.

But the trend we have in our education system, is that of a masochistic submission to the sacred ‘Guru’. Especially prevalent in medical education, if not in others. An anti-intellectual hierarchy that tries to suppress doubt and dissent from their juniors. To be fair to some inspirational tutors who really are dedicated towards encouraging openness and academic dialogue, I’ll say that you people fall in the minority and this isn’t about you lot. The pervasive mentality is still that of a hierarchy of age or professional graduation. ‘Thou shalt not go against the professor’ is the common save-your-asses trend. Or even the nonsensical ‘call your immediate seniors dai or didi’ or the anti-humanistic tradition of “Ragging” (Formal bullying of freshmen by seniors). Because if the professor or the senior has a problem with you, it’s highly likely that you’ll have a problem socializing or even passing. Academic dissent can easily turn into a sequence of personal vendetta and thus professional or academic sabotage, from which there may not be any redemption. One reason why students self-suppress themselves even in the face of inaccurate or outdated information. Ask anyone who has gone through an archaic testing pattern known as Viva-Voce in medicine. If you question the teacher or the examiner, you’ll hurt their ego so keep quiet instead and mug up their notes for some bloody marks or points!

To be a little optimistic, this trend is dwindling, thanks to the advent of broad band internet and an increasing awareness in part of the teachers as well as recently graduated students who became teachers themselves. But it’s not surprising to see students joyful whenever they find a good and welcoming teacher, because those still are rare. It’s this mentality that must be upgraded for us all to better our system. Students should never be held academic hostage for dissent or difference of opinion. How else is anyone supposed to broaden their mind and think outside the box? There’s a reason why freedom of speech and expression is vital in educational institutes, it’s to foster legitimate dissent without the fear of prosecution, formal or informal. A virtue which Nepali students almost certainly are deprived of in their institutions.

Race for the Holy Grail

Spoilers ahead! By the holy grail, I actually mean academic degrees. That’s all that matters to a majority of parents, students, teachers and institutes. We are, in this tiny country, in a serious race for some academic degree and to earn money faster than our neighbors or cousins. A superficial counter-scholarly trend that is prevalent in this part of the world. Knowledge, professional training or skills should be the desired means as well as the end of any academic of educational institute or student. Out here, paper certificates, many times liable to be counterfeit, are treated as the only important end. Degrees, though they seem important, are but just means to make a get some academic recognition and to earn a living. The end should, rightly always be, the knowledge and expertise one gets through the process of education.

Such is the provision out here, that students can even obtain a degree (however poor their academic or professional prowess might be) simply by passing a black and white exam that only screens for their ability to recall volatile memories. Concepts and practical skills are rarely well-tested. Now of course, as I’ve pointed out earlier, there are outliers who can excel in the same system as much as the outliers at other end who constantly fail and never get anywhere. Again I’d like to stress on the fact that it’s the average we should be after, not the outliers. Any body or group of people genuinely interested to improve the standards of graduates of any discipline, technical or others, should always strive towards improving the average. But that doesn’t happen here, at least not according to my experience and knowledge. It’s a culture reflected by acts such as schools displaying the names of their best 10 students on hoarding boards outside their premises, who have gotten good marks in a certain board exam. Much like one of those cheap click-bait advertisements we see on the internet for Viagra.

Colleges, campuses and private medical schools all exist, annoyingly fostering this dystopian mentality. Instead of improving the average, their focus is too often just on the outliers for the sole purpose of advertisement, possibly to pull in more students. The blame can partly be put on the society as well. These profit houses disguised as professional institutes, are mere stamp pads bearing the emblem of the university’s degree. Their fodder actually comes from the society’s priority of superficial taglines over the more important pulp of education: The real-world application of their knowledge. The major incentive is solely profit and nothing more, with certain exceptions of course, but very little. The people who run such institutes perhaps have no sense of responsibility towards the nation or the society at all. They can be justifiably called factory houses that package students with respective degrees, which occasionally hand out the best employee or best package award to keep the money flowing. A massive disgrace to scholarship indeed.

Hope

I repeat, I do not claim to have a solution at hand at the moment. I’m just a mere blogger highlighting what I saw to be wrong and disturbing. From the beginning of the history of scholarship, from the time of the first universities and schools established in the first civilizations, it is well known that the quality of any society is an indirect but proportional reflection of the quality of their education or scholarship. As a matter of fact, we can grossly estimate where our nation stands at the moment.

I really want to be optimistic on this regard though. Despite my harsh criticism, I do need to point out that this country has made significant strides in the sector of education as a whole, considering the nascent history of democracy and a sluggish yet emerging free market. Bureaucracy is not as pervasive as it used to be during the Panchayat era and it is being easier for citizens to access government services as per growing popular demand. Corruption and nepotism is being scrutinized, and efforts at improvement are being made by related individuals and groups in related sectors. The first actual federal government hasn’t even worked for a year and federalism hasn’t had an actual chance to test itself. Foreign graduates and expats are returning and there’s an ever growing entrepreneurial spirit reflected by the the emergence of new startups and them turning later into successful businesses. These are hopeful aspects of this nation. But never really enough to be content. Not yet.

Despite the visible glitter, attitude towards scholars, intellectuals and professionals are still not impressive though. Those who do opt to stay in Nepal to further their fields are seen with contempt, many even labeling them as elitists or non-relatable privileged class. Opinions of experts are not given more importance in policy making than those of a less educated but powerful politician. Celebrity worship is on the rise, but intellectuals and scholars are looked down upon with the stereotype of talkers and slackers (more than often, rightly so). It’s simply a paradox of dissatisfaction. All hope may not be lost, but anyone concerned should seriously need to contemplate on this grave matter.

If we supposedly need to start from any one point in the long and tedious process of bettering our society, then definitely top priority should be given to education and scholarship. Do we wish to stay in the dark and keep blaming our politicians for eternity, or do we wish to better our society by recognizing, respecting and emancipating our potency for enlightenment?

Personal Opinion, Rationalism

Did you know?

All these people who complain about ‘white privilege’ and ‘white exceptionalism’ definitely have credit where it’s due.

But sometimes they take it too far to the point of falsely justifying their cultural inferiority complex, that likens their argument to those of religious fanatics (Us against them sort of mindset). That white people are bad and should be always guilty for what their grandparents or ancestors did; and everyone else is a victim of their white prejudice.

Arguing from a ‘victim’ mindset could be detrimental to the legitimate argument they actually may be presenting, because in such a state, it degrades their argument just to the level of white people-bashing and nothing else. It’s one thing to learn from the ill aspects of history, and wholly another be stuck at one point of it.

It helps to not polarise your thinking and knowledge if you can understand about perspectives across the world. Did these people know that the Japanese people, isolated from the rest of the continent, used to be as entitled as the British Colonizers? There still are politically powerful ‘Japanese exceptionalists’ lobbying against immigration in the state and to strengthen Japanese influence in the region. The imperial government of Japan tried to expand its dominion all over East Asia and the Pacific at one time. There was a time United States didn’t like to interfere in global affairs, before the great war. It’s all about power. A dominant culture of one time tries to encroach upon others. Indians would if they had a chance. The Nepalese would if they had it themselves. Not implying moral indifference, just asserting an observed phenomenon. Not everything has to do with race.

And if you look at history from a bird’s-eye-view, then it all makes sense. That is why I respect intellectuals and personalities who try to present a non-narrative-driven, unbiased picture of reality instead of the opposite kind who have a particular agenda at hand and confidently argue just to defend it, even when they are wrong.

In simpler words, this is why I respect outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall-street Journal, BBC, Aeon, Atlantic and Reuters (nowadays, even Wikipedia news) more than CNN, FOX news, MSNBC, Vice, Vox or the notorious Huffington post.

Religion, Skepticism

Karma

Personally, I really want Karma to be true. I really wish that the concept of karma and re-incarnation were of actual reality. I’d be the first one to rejoice if it were to be so. Because there are some people who actually deserve some real karmic punishment and also I’d be really happy to see them reborn as a snail or a dung beetle over and over again to be eaten alive by a predator, perpetually throughout many cycles. For the things these people have done, you really want them to be punished. Vengeful feelings aside, I’d also want the best for all the loved ones we all have lost. I’d really want my dog to be a re-incarnated form of a close relative or a grandparent I was close to when they were alive.

But reality is not human-centric for Karma to be real. It isn’t even life-centric for re-incarnation to be real, let alone Karma. How do we know in the first place that there is such a comfortable concept to lay claim so confidently? It’s written in a certain scripture, and has been re-iterated by well known wise sages or gurus in some corner of India. Not a very compelling argument. No one has ever demonstrated to validate the concept. So how do we know it’s real unless we are lying to ourselves or others who trust us?

So we just have to bet on the odds for the people who do us wrong to suffer, and have to force us to feel fulfilled if anything bad happens to them. And we call this guilty pleasure, Karma, along with an add-on concept of re-incarnation. A “Tit-for-Tat” mentality, justified by an elaborate metaphysical backstory. All in all, to consciously or subconsciously trick ourselves into believing some sort of escapist alternate reality, away from the harsh, indifferent, uncaring, nihilistic, esoteric and complex truth of the reality we actually exist in. Why can’t we be intellectually honest enough to face the reality we exist in rather than to try and escape from it? Honest in a sense to not confabulate concepts about reality when you don’t understand or know about it, but to admit ignorance and pursue reason and evidence instead?