Achieving the digital detox.

Over the past few months, during my interaction with various people on Twitter and offline, I have been hearing about the information deluge that makes it impossible for them to acquire new skills. We indeed have limited 24 hours!

I wouldn’t be able to give a blow by blow account of how I manage things, but I have had to stick to certain good habits that have made things more comfortable for me. I will mention a few services below that make it incredibly easy to flow past the flood of distractions.

1) Mobile phone:

This is the biggest annoyance! I am off the social networks on the device barring Telegram. More on that later.

Twitter is accessed only on the browser. No dedicated applications exist. All notifications on the device are blocked except for text messages.

Telegram helps me to mute all conversations except people whom I deem essential. I have a lot of channels where I consume content passively. No mainstream social networks like Facebook or Instagram for me. They are antiquated because I cannot control them.

I also don’t have a fear of missing out. My associates either call me or text me if needed. Android has become better to manage notifications in recent times. I don’t have any experience with iOS, but I remain convinced that Apple iPhones are merely iPods with a calling facility.

2) Email.

I had mentioned this earlier too. I use Fastmail because I find there is inherent value in paying up for the email. I use a lot of aliases whenever I sign up for the service. It helps to signup with a unique email address. For example, for Dropbox, my alias will be dropbox (at) FastMail dot com (it is a hypothetical- just for illustration). Therefore, if any spam flows into my inbox, I know where is the leak from. All I have to do is to delete the alias.

This simple hack has served me well over six years, and I am happy to stay with this service. Mainstream email applications like Gmail or Yahoo are useless.

I have also created extensive rules which directs the email in the trash. It helps to clean up the clutter at the server itself without manual intervention. For example, all newsletters go to trash directly. Some of them are automatically marked as read and stay in the inbox- I scan through them when I get time. When they are marked as read, I don’t get a notification. Therefore, can easily stay focused on my work without being distracted by the flow in the inbox.

3) Password Manager

1Password is the password manager that is my life saver. It generates unique passwords for all the websites. It is a paid service, but good cloud sync helps me to sync it with my Android device as well. It eliminates the need to remember unique passwords.

4) The use of Telegram chat app

Telegram remains the only way to stay connected with any semblance of “social network”. I use a combination of groups and channels to stay informed. Channels work as public broadcasts. Any specific information I need is transmitted to it. I use bots (both paid and free) to achieve the effect.

For example, I use the IFTTT bot to work with the RSS feeds to populate the channels with the Pubmed content. If I need to track, say the latest publications in the development of MR-LINAC, I don’t have to visit the website manually. By use of booleans, I can filter the content, generate the specific RSS feeds which pipes it elegantly in the channel via IFTTT bot. Likewise, I use junction-connection bot and Feed-Reader bot for different purposes. I pool in information from all specific channels I need to follow into one omnibus channel so that I don’t have to deal with a multitude of channels. I do this by using junction-bot on Telegram.

Feed-Reader bot helps me to tap into various other social networks. For example, I have a specific channel devoted to cycling. All posts from multiple Instagram accounts flow in the channel. It helps me to keep track of the sectoral development. Likewise, I developed a channel for journalists on Telegram to keep track of telecom sector and clean energy. I also have a dedicated art channel that I helped to make for a friend. That collects all impressionist art, beautiful nature pictures and graffiti! None of the posts is done manually.

Focused groups require extensive group management. I recommend using Combot because it comes with a beautiful web-interface. Although the community bot management has introduced a paid plan, it is free for groups that have up to 100 members. The bot deletes specific stop words automatically along with other nifty features like muting users. The bot also keeps groups free of spam messages. Therefore, the groups stay efficient, productive and on course. It is unlike WhatsApp where users start spamming others without any rhyme or reason.

This above may sound onerous, but it helps to maximise the efficiency gains. As long as you are not distracted, it helps to keep focused on work.

In the busy schedules that we keep, always find time for solitude. That is the most critical period to stop and reflect on your goals.

Digital tools need a constant refinement. Hopefully, I will update this in the future.

(Images are for representational purpose only. This blog post is not intended for any commercial purpose).

Brain Tumours Bot for feedback

I am happy to announce the launch of a feedback bot to collect link to various brain tumour charities across the world (braintumourbot).

I had toyed with the idea to create a Wiki, but I realised that existing tools are too messy that can be utilised effectively. Why not have something that makes things more efficient?

It is how you do it:

1) Install Telegram and open it.

2) Search for @braintumourbot

3) Press “start” at the bottom. Then type it in the space provided.

4) In the bot description, there exists a link to the channel.

5) Your submissions will be updated there.

You can search for respective charities either in the search box in the channel or typing particular hashtag. For example, in the link provided, the hashtag for Britain is #UK, and the city hashtag for London is #LON.

The Brain Tumour support channel is also active! (@cnssm)

I will provide a complete name for cities that are far away from the urban centres.

This bot on Telegram chat application is the first ever crowdsourced experiment to get everyone on board.

Can you rely on Twitter?

Of late, my engagement with Twitter has decreased as my cynicism about social media has resurfaced. I have always held the belief that Twitter is, at first, a link-sharing service. The 140 characters and URL shortening services came out of that. However, they have actively tried to increase engagement.

It doesn’t happen like that. The rates of engagement (defined by clicking on the shared links) are abysmal. It means that anyone given the user is at the mercy of algorithms. Any change in that and the discoverability falls to zero.

The Twitter timeline is unsuitable for orderly consumption. I had mentioned before, and I reiterate- it depends on how algorithm ranks your association and engagement with other users. I have tried, with varying levels of success, to participate in the “live-tweeting”, but the heterogeneous nature of discussion doesn’t add structure.

I have bet my horses on Telegram instead. It is growing, without any direct marketing. The groups remain functional by use of bots which automate policing the channel. It ensures that no one misuses the allotted privileges to speak up. I have been managing a group recently which makes it easier for disparate users to discuss issues cohesively and understandably. Sharing links, inline players and in-app browser (or instant view) is a huge plus.

If the bottom line is efficiency, then yes, Telegram wins hands down. Twitter is becoming a mass of super-added mess. I use the offline Tweet clients because the web-version has a subpar experience. Besides, it tracks using cookies and other means.

I have tried (valiantly!) to convince users to switch gears. Staying online makes it worse for identity thefts. People implicitly trust social networks, but it is a decision that is fraught with danger.

Twitter is in search of a business model that would pay up for itself. As an ad-supported service, the users are the product. Despite the real-time insights, Twitter has been dumb enough not to be able to capitalise on the generated data. Either way, despite the promises of being able to provide a medium of discovery, the real fun happens in closed groups where we chat up, in detail, about issues that are close to heart.

The new promised updates to Twitter will still languish and leave you at the mercy of nameless, faceless algorithm. Think about it.

There’s still time to change gears.

Social media: Caveat emptor!

The debate about doctors being on social media hasn’t ended. Most people, I have spoken to, have very negative connotations about it. They feel, very strongly feel, that Twitter is nothing but an echo chamber of bigotry, lies and cussedness. It “might” be true but then technology is what you make it out to be!

Facebook is another different beast. Their claimed usage is about 2 billion users, but no has independently verified these numbers. They have been able to grow this because of powerful network effects. Most users feel comfortable here because it allows them to interact with “friends and family”. It also means that most users are reckless about it.

Facebook is a global surveillance system that gives dopamine fuelled high to be voyeuristic or exhibitionist. Their terms of service point towards collecting the data and being able to share it with “third party affiliates”. I often chuckle when people get horrified that the service they depend on its utility, for administrators, for psychological manipulation. What would it take to learn the lessons?

Social media is as good as we make it out to be. The best ideas for the blog post appear in my Twitter timeline. I get ideas, dwell on them and then write. One way out could be to learn from different specialities, see how they are using it and adapt it yours. The ideas take their shape and pretty soon, a rich interactive web form that enriches it even further.

(I prefer Telegram app).

Apple health: The new age digital colonialism

Mobile ecosystems have now boiled down mostly to a duopoly- Android and iOS. Android portrays itself to be an open source but now increasingly locked down by Google with incremental updates. Apple promotes its iOS operating system- increasingly popular with the physicians and lay people in developed and developing economies.

I am not delving into technical nuances, but perceived benefits of Apple are its flawed privacy stance based on its marketing spin called “differential privacy”. Apple hasn’t shown any inclination towards having any independent advertisement networks, and this division doesn’t get any mention. It gets it’s revenues from superior hardware and locked in services (these revenues are never repatriated back to the country of origin). Apple also has controversial policies concerning foreign workers in China, and the manufactured debate about the privacy (it fought FBI) was frivolous. It did divide the tech community. Interestingly, it’s foray in China is opposite of what it does in the US. It has handed over the encryption keys to Chinese government citing the local laws (paywall).

Personally, I find that their stance on privacy as a PR stunt. When I read or hear about their foray into healthcare, I recoil with horror. My privacy stance will not be enough to oppose them, but I was alerted to a write up in Harvard Business Review, which in my opinion, was a plug for Apple.

I can only surmise that interoperability within the electronic health records is a significant pain point. I know this because, at some point in time, I had been privy to getting one for my department. At the same time, my employer was keen to move towards it. (It did not materialise- but that’s another story). The question about the data portability came in, and it was apparent that it relied on some obscure protocol which didn’t have any open source equivalent. It meant that once the company goes belly up, all data, even if exported out, would only disappear into thin air. Or become useless.

Now you can foresee similar issues with the current tech companies. They would push for their proprietary protocols because big money lies in locking up users in their ecosystems. While the initial enthusiasm is understandable (a familiar user interface to work with like messaging applications) but it’s cheerleaders are ignoring the longer and more sinister implications of this move.

When the authors dream up instances of voice assistants detailing health information, I can only roll up my eyes. Either it is naïveté or stupidity or a mixture of both. These ancilliary companies are circling in anticipation of emerging technology, to feed on spoils from the ecosystem.

Is it suitable for the patients? Let’s examine that.

Healthcare data is most valuable commodity in dark web. Primarily, it has been used to impersonate individuals to gain access to medications (further sold in black markets). More importantly, healthcare data is of paramount importance- patterns of diseases, required interventions etc. should strictly be the purview of the governments and not private companies. None of which can be made accountable. The authors have explicitly mentioned about access to the third party companies where individual users are signing away the rights. The same consumers have been signing off the terms of services for Facebook, for example, and are shocked and horrified if they realise that their data is being used for psychological manipulation. People don’t recognise the importance of “caveat emptor”. Most users are technologically averse with very little understanding of the nuances involved.

Therefore, giving up data to these companies is a bad idea. I also see thought leaders and influencers pushing this line on the social media, but then, they have a lot to gain. I guess, no one reads the financial disclosures or stakes in the companies that stand to benefit from this push.

Healthcare and technology are getting more intertwined and complex. Let the likes of Apple and Amazon be excluded from this.

Or else, this would be the new wave of digital colonialism.

Inbox Zero: Fastmail for academics.

Who wants this?

It is simple.

Sign up for Fastmail.

Have a custom domain, if you want. Or else, existing domains offered by Fastmail work fine.

Have an alias for each website. For example, if you order pizzas, have one for that. For a travel website, have another. The trick is NOT to give out your actual email id but give the alias for that particular site.

This is how it plays out. Go to dominos and have an alias like dominos@fastmail.com (or whatever domain you want). It will immediately segregate your email. If you are spammed for that domain, it is a matter of deleting that alias. Simple. Quick. Painless.

I have folders for all incoming mail, and Fastmail allows setting up rules to sort them out automatically. For example, if I have a newsletter subscription, it is set to flow in that folder and marked as read. Or anything else that I wish to read later.

Achieve that today!

Social Media: Falsehoods

I was alarmed to read about falsehoods about health spreading through WhatsApp. It is a Facebook-owned application which has millions of users worldwide. It is impossible to get the actual numbers but suffice to say that it is prevalent in emerging economies.

The alarm went off with an excellent article from The Wired which has chronicled the rise in Yellow Fever epidemic in Brazil and the falsehoods surrounding the vaccination. I reproduce some essential bits here.

In recent weeks, rumours of fatal vaccine reactions, mercury preservatives, and government conspiracies have surfaced with alarming speed on the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging service, which is used by 120 million of Brazil’s roughly 200 million residents. The platform has long incubated and proliferated fake news, in Brazil in particular.

The phenomenon of fake news isn’t peculiar to Brazil, but these spread rapidly through the social networks.

“These videos are very sophisticated, with good editing, testimonials from experts, and personal experiences,” Sacramento says. It’s the same journalistic format people see on TV, so it bears the shape of truth. And when people share these videos or news stories within their social networks as personal messages, it changes the calculus of trust.

If you wish to have a scientific basis to why this happens, Science published a great resource.

We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organisations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information.

This is an example of a rumour cascade:

The purpose of this post is that physicians should step up their game and have an active social media presence. A lot of sane voices will go a long way to dispel myths and fears about public health initiatives.

That is the reason why I set up Telegram channel to have physician vetted information and a one-stop solution for brain tumour affected patients. We owe people more!