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 (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!

Why blogging is essential

When you face an empty sheet, the hardest part is to define the direction you want to give to your words.

This post was in response to a brilliant blog post on 33charts, which is peddled by an influential paediatrician. I love the way he wraps up his ideas which is both a joy and a delight to read.

I have flirted and experimented with blogging consistently over the past few years (a decade or more). I am aware of how the blogging landscape evolved.

This neuroblog was set up later in response to many recommendations by those who had been there. Blogging is the best way to be able to get your ideas out. It showcases what is on your mind.

If you are clear in your mind, you can set out to do what you wish to achieve. Hence, this blogging platform is essential to categorise as well as firm up the opinion.

Twitter is sorely limited to express both the nuance as well as context. A blogging platform only explains the background, but spoken word or personal interactions best explain nuance.

Each one of these leads to a more vibrant diversity of opinion.

(Images are subject to copyright of their owners)

Twitter for oncologists: Beyond 280 characters

I had my disdain for social media. It had been in the news for all wrong reasons. This post isn’t going to add to a growing and mounting evidence that social media is practically useless for politics because it amplifies our echo chambers and fuelling our confirmation biases. In the past few months, I have learned enough to hand hold a few tech-phobic colleagues and discover the positive side instead.

The hashtag: Twitter revolves around hash-tags. This is akin to a large room where people are discussing a topic; they come, and they leave the room. By having an open door policy, anyone can join in the conversation. It is like a large town-hall. Twitter usually lists trending hash-tags, but there are numerous third-party services which reveal global hashtags; not large enough to trend but essential nevertheless.

For example, #btsm is the hashtag for brain tumours social media. Often, patient advocates invite many thought leaders to debate and discuss on brain tumours. Anyone can use the hashtag to follow the process.

You guessed it right. The signal to noise ratio is very low, which makes it difficult to follow the conversation, meaningfully.

Username by @: They enduring symbol “@“ when prepended in front of a username, alerts the person (via notification) that he/she has been called out in the noisy room. You can either use the hashtag in the conversation (when the chats are being conducted) or individually if you wish to draw someone’s attention to their Twitter stream.

Twitter stream: Algorithms usually determine the endless “tweets” you see. Therefore, when you start out, with an empty slate, the number of tweets tend to be overwhelming as you start following various users. It happens because, Twitter, as a service, uses, the number of signals (your community engagement or number of re-tweets etc.) to determine what you are going to see there. The idea is to stay focused on what your goals are.

Direct Message: This works like an inbox system; you can restrict the users who can reach out to you.

It can quickly get overwhelming on this service. You will have to make several modifications to the way you are notified- via email, desktop or mobile clients. I prefer to get a notification only on a direct message from people who follow me. For everything else, it is switched off.

I prefer and recommend a desktop application (TweetBot for Mac). But you are forewarned. The developers do not bother to reply to your queries, and it lacks several customisation features. It gets the job done because I can filter out the advertisements on the web service. I also prefer to have a Tweetmarker service to go through the unread tweets. You can also turn off retweets from specific followers or mute them indefinitely.

Should you use Twitter or Facebook? In my opinion, both are bad. Even though the masses are there, but it represents too much of concentration of “power” in the hands of an algorithm. That’s why I prefer, the simple and straightforward Telegram. Groups work precisely that ways- you can quickly set up hashtags to organise the chats. Not many people follow this. Channels work exactly like a public broadcast. You can always set up links to discuss issues in the groups. As usual, there is a going to be a vast majority of people who will not speak up.

Closing thoughts: Twitter represents a dominant social media with numerous warts. I call it robust, only because of the sheer number of users, who have flocked to this medium. Most users are technology agnostic. People usually go by word of mouth recommendation or something which they have heard is “popular”.

It is time to take the leap of faith and contribute to the positive side of social media. As well as, try out something different and better! (Hint: Telegram)

Why a Telegram channel for brain tumours was created?

The idea behind setting up a Telegram channel and a group was inspired by holding a Twitter-based discussion with a colleague. I am placing this on record here.

The central premise is a straightforward thing. If I were to face a similar situation, what would have been my state of mind? What is the ideal way to go about this? So, I decided to set up something in a way which I would have wanted. The first and foremost is the platform wherein I could access psychological support. These issues hit from nowhere, and it is essential to know that I am not vulnerable nor alone. While a lot of emphases has been placed on breaking bad news by the oncologists, handling the aftermath of emotional distress by a patient is an unaddressed issue. Having access to psychological resources or a support group becomes imperative at that moment.

How do I choose a support group? Ideally, one that has an active involvement of a clinician in some capacity. Most patients hit Google with a furious pace to know more about the disease. It is essential to guide them efficiently to informed sources about what we are dealing with, the likely side effects and estimated financial impact. Like a multi-disciplinary set up in a hospital, it should reflect some of it’s moving parts in a chat group as well. Patients should reasonably be expected to be guided through a simple workflow; a place where their queries are answered.

That, in simple terms, is the purpose of having a dedicated Telegram group. It is envisaged that patients would find others who have gone through similar experiences, interact with rehabilitation specialists (the medium should allow exchanging large files like videos or multimedia content) and access all old messages about the same thread (through a global search or use of hashtags). These are the broad contours to get the project off the ground and fine tune it as we go along.

Besides, regular updates and events about brain tumours need to be disseminated. A stream of messages in the proper group would become too overwhelming for every participant. Telegram offers a mechanism to copy the link of a particular message in the channel and share it anywhere (each exchanged message has a unique link available for the administrators). This would make it more efficient to share content across the application.

As with any application, users would need time to get used to the user interface. Twitter isn’t intuitive but is most widely used (along with Facebook). Twitter is meant for the immediacy of events, as they unravel. Hence, it becomes difficult (or even overwhelming) for a vast majority of users to get used to it. Like for example, no one subscribes to public lists of patient advocates that I have curated and collected, because most users aren’t aware of how to use Twitter effectively. As a result, their timelines are cluttered forcing them to spend more time. Due to process improvements, I usually skip over my timeline (using Mac desktop version) in less than 15 minutes because everything I need to focus on is there.

I hope that users find Telegram a vital addition to their daily lives.

The launch of Telegram channel (CNSSM- Central Nervous System, Social Media).

Over the past few months, I have been exploring Telegram chat application over the choice of other options that have flooded the cyberspace. Telegram embodies the best prospects of all in one neat package. It’s apparent that its closest competitor WhatsApp is the most commonly used app on the planet, but it comes with several limitations. The chief amongst them is constant surveillance by Facebook which makes it impossible to be “private” even though; it may have end to end encryption. I won’t go into details here but suffice to say that Telegram offers a much better option to interact.

One of its redeeming features is channel and hashtag search. Channels are uni-directional flows for information. It means that users can read it but not reply to it. Subscribers can be directed to chat groups to discuss any pertinent issue. Since the channels have unlimited members, Telegram offers a perfect scalable option for that. The exciting bit is hashtag function which, for me, was quite serendipitous. The posts come tagged automatically like #events #charity (pushed by different brain tumour charities), #updates and my favourite #motivation (posters with quotes). I can also add reminders for various websites/ events over a recurring interval.

A Telegram group works like any other chat application but with distinct advantages. It can have multiple administrators (to moderate discussions over different time zones), users can also add hashtags to search (or do a global search for anything discussed), access to all previous messages for new members, mute notifications and notification alert only if their username is tagged in replies. I prefer anonymity and privacy in social networks. Twitter may serve as an excellent platform but is not altruistic- it logs and tracks every user. Further, it has a severe limitation of characters which does not address individual queries effectively.

The idea behind is to consolidate everything in one application. The telegram app is accessible via desktops and multiple platforms (including a web browser) which doesn’t constrain users from one locked in place. Phone numbers aren’t required to join a group or channel. They just need to do a global search via public username; here in this case “cnssm” (without quotes).

Another distinct advantage is an amplification of social media messages. We are drowned in by mobile notifications and Telegram offers granular control over what gets your attention. Much of what I do on Telegram is automated which makes things easier to manage.

I hope that most charities would consider this platform- its fast, quick, private, secure, scalable; indeed, everything that’s required to keep privacy intact. Once the channel grows, I plan to introduce video messages; a quick blurb on what patients need to do and focus on; have a separate group for professionals to share best practises and files. Ideally, we could have a rehabilitation specialist, a dietician and social workers. Charities should also keep a token presence here to identify users and guide them efficiently for financial issues.

How I have refined my academic workflow?

(Estimated reading time: around 8 minutes).

I have been trying to establish an academic workflow for quite some time now. Writing about it helps me to organise my thoughts better. I’ll highlight what I have found useful. This list is by no means exhaustive. This is also in line with my idea of documenting everything as I hurtle towards the goal of academia. Its an ongoing struggle but I am hoping that someone more knowledgeable than me would take time out to point any obvious flaws. I also hope to spur on discussion about their own workflows.

Mind Map and how ideas could flow

Created in scapple; a basic mind map

Step 1: Creating a mind map.

I use Scapple for it. There are other alternatives available but I haven’t explored them. Stare at a blank canvas and start writing randomly. Identify the thoughts as they come to you. They help in brainstorming. This involves identifying the parameters that I have to use/cover, all the ideas I have to write about and how I need to be able to distinguish my write up from other published ones.

That, I believe, is the most important part, since the first part of any research is identifying the question and being able to coherently frame it. This is followed by supportive evidence (if any) and the strength of the protocol that you are out to write. If you don’t want to use Scapple from the outset, you can always write it down; see all the ideas that form a feedback loop, if any, and then take it forward.

Key takeaway: Identify the idea first!

Step 2: Pubmed

Once I have done it, I hit Pubmed. The search on Pubmed has improved vastly although a compelling use case exists for Quertle as well. Previously, Quertle had a free tier but its a paid option now. I haven’t used it recently though. Nevertheless, I use advanced search and booleans to drill down to the specifics on pubmed. Once I have identified my key words that give me adequate results, the fun starts.

A specific keyword is likely to give a river of publications. Most of them are usually contextually related and Pubmed has complex algorithms to sort them out. I prefer to subscribe the whole list by RSS feeds (which I covered recently). These RSS feeds then pipe into Inoreader. Few people might prefer to get email for it but this is easily lost in the sea of email that we get (I hit on a specific actionable inbox zero protocol long time back and its serving me very well). Email is a bad idea.

Step 3: Inoreader for RSS feeds

Inoreader is a fantastic resource. Apart from the specific Twitter searches, I can filter out the feeds.

Lets say, if the feed is showing up keywords for canine oligodendroglioma (which is irrelevant for me), it can be filtered out. Once its done, I can set up several other rules in conjunction with IFTTT.

Inoreader and IFTTT (If This, Then That) allows you to create applets that links various services. For example, I pipe articles related to specific keywords, IFTTT can be triggered each time the article comes in. I add specific hashtags to it and viola! All articles that are of relevance (from specific keywords/filtered) are pushed out to Twitter. A bit of human curation also occurs in this river of articles. I usually “star” the articles (things I have to follow) and IFTTT appends separate hash tag to it and pushes out to Twitter.

In this, specific write ups that are relevant to my work (starred articles, for example), are saved and downloaded (usually from Sci-Hub or through institutional paywalls).

Step 4: HighlightsApp on Mac

I use Highlights App on Mac (I think it was created by a PhD student himself). The coolest thing about it is the annotations come as a note (which now happens in Bookends as well). These notes are exported as TextBundle and opened up via Ulysses. I add meaning to these notes (needed to learn a little Markdown; enough for me to get going) and Ulysses pushes it to my publishing website on word

Step 5: Using Ulysses to craft your ideas

The beauty about Ulysses (apart from the simplicity, writing long form, ability to preview in various formats etc) is stellar customer support. I faced an issue with Highlights app and Ulysses and it was addressed by the developer himself. They moved towards a subscription based model and I think it was a wise sensible decision.

Step 6: Always use a Bibliography manager for your papers!

Nevertheless, I have found peace with using Bookends. It is (I think) a one man show (Sonny Software) and is one of the most comprehensive solutions. Sente/Papers 3 are gasping but Bookends has thrived on a payment model (upgrade every 2 years) with stellar support; both on forums and email. Bookends serves as a bibliography tool (this deserves another blog post some day).

Step 7: Scrivener for writing papers. A must have and a life saver!

After annotations/note taking, I prefer to write using Scrivener; especially the long form. I break up the article in several parts and I can work on them at different intervals. This also requires another blog post!

Scrivener pipes out the output in rtf (for example) where Bookends can scan it, add the citations which then requires some more formatting to be pushed to journals for submission (and then hope that the anonymous reviewer would be nice to you!)

Starting from Pubmed, this train of thought may sound complex (but it isn’t) and is straightforward. Each one of them serves a specific purpose.

Ulysses works perfectly to write these blog posts since I prefer to use a distraction free environment. I use Vivaldi browser as my preferred software; has tons of shortcuts and muscle thats absolutely amazing.

Don’t forget cups of tea/coffee and some Spotify lists to keep things interesting! (meditative music helps me :))

Disclosure: None of them are affiliate links and I have paid for the software in full. They deserve to be highlighted!