Science, Storytelling, and Swyde

In the early dial-up days of 2005, the internet was so different than what we see today. I had to wait until the weekends to get myself in front of a computer connected to the web. It was the time YouTube was a little startup that was just launched. Wikipedia was a new type of collaborative encyclopedia, competing with Britannica. Khan Academy hasn’t been founded yet. Encarta was the only cool encyclopedia in school computers.

Now it seems all magical to look how these things have evolved. Wikipedia surpassed Britannica, influencing the 244-year-old encyclopedia giant to go online only. Khan Academy has colourfully embraced the infrastructure of YouTube and had made itself as one of the best video educational resources on the web. Well, for Encarta… it’s a different story!

But if there is one resourceful platform that hasn’t evolved, it is the discussion boards. They hardly have seen any variations! While there are new platforms like the adorable Flarum and Discourse that try to make forums more interesting with modern gamification and rewarding features, the core concept is the simple ‘ask, answer, and discuss’ idea. And it simply doesn’t work well for science!

The problem is that we try to cram everything (the question/topic, the answer, and the discussion) into a web page in a regular discussion stream! For forums that are focused on science, this shouldn’t be the case. Science forums are where the curiosity thrives, and perhaps the anchoring happens for most of the learners at their nascent stage. It’s one of the two places on the internet where science meets the art of storytelling. But this beautiful amalgamation goes stale when discussions and un-editable misinformation cling along and ruin the essence.

However, there are Q&A sites like Stack Exchange trying to fix this issue by distinguishing the storytelling part (ask and answer part) from the discourse, and keeping the science clean and accurate for the curious to read. There are also communities like Reddit’s AskScience, where people collaboratively explain things and democratically keep the gist retained despite mixing everything from branched discussions to witty comments. Sites and platforms like these still face major unavoidable problems.

  • Duplication.
  • Lack of consistency.
  • Limited collaboration.
  • Intermediary discussions, breaking the content flow.

For example, when you analyse a thread from any forums, you could find too many answers trying to explain the same fundamental idea. And in between, you can find questions that break the flow apart and introduce more queries into the mix and add more complexity.

Swyde

So to fix these issues, or in other words, to provide a better alternative, last year around April, I started working on a project to build a collaborative platform that would separate the topic from discussions, and still retain the connection. It wasn’t an easy task at first. I researched some ideas for a while and came up with a simple Django application, which resembled a wikified forum. Replacing it with MediaWiki, I started testing with some content formats, and finally stumbled onto the delightful FAQs.

No! Dinosaurs did not violate the square-cube law!  🙂

FAQs are the only solution to avoid duplication. And with an explanation put above it, it would be the right format for any topic that would have a constant flow of it. A wiki about DNA on Wikipedia could beautifully explain what DNA is to everyone on the planet. It is an article, and it does what it does best! And I just applied the same format of the article for Q&A, and it seems to work better than the forum format. I have created Swyde with that idea in mind. Here is a page about DNA on Swyde that I wrote a few days ago that could help you see the idea in action.

So the case here is if a learner is to search for “What is the difference between DNA and RNA?”, a collaboratively refined answer along with all the other related frequently asked questions, with a concise explanation of the topic at the top, all seamlessly embedded in a single page with internal links to all the subtopics would be the best resource on the web. Along with the associated page for discussions, the content flow of the topic and Q&A is uninterrupted. It is also editable by anyone! And it’s run on MediaWiki, an environment that the world had created for itself! How awesome is that!

At the moment, I have been creating some random topics at Swyde in my free time. Along with that, I am also customizing a few aspects of the forked MediaWiki engine to add more features to augment this way of Q&A storytelling experience. If you are interested, you can go ahead and start contributing right away.

 

Swyde is my effort to make the Q&A on the internet better and fresh in a non-repetitive manner. I’d love to hear your opinions and feedbacks on this, and it really could help the project. If you prefer an open discussion, you can find me on Swyde here. Or you can shoot me a mail to karthikeyan@swyde.com. I’m also available on Twitter.

You can know more about Swyde here (you bet! FAQs!).

Life and everything at 25

I am writing this to the fellow kids like me who are really confused right now, in their mid-20 iteration of their earthly life. Especially for the humans out there who have too much time on their hands to fathom life right up to the metaphysical point.

In a few months, I’m going to hit 25. It is quite hard to imagine that I am a freaking adult now! The improvised swords, sheet capes, and the toys in my room make it even harder to process this transition. And I am here, writing this, like a guy who has it all figured out!

No, I haven’t! And probably will never figure out anything when it comes to life. Because there is nothing to find out about it in the first place. Life just happens!

Planning is an abstract thing and is not really that fun to do. Each and every moment from my kindergarten to engineering was meticulously planned, and it had really taken the fun out of my life in a way. I had to break a few norms here and there to make it interesting again, but the plans always took away something from me.

If you try to plan your life ahead, you’ll certainly have a vivid clue about the future, and you will start expecting something to happen. You run simulations in your mind with ultimate future fantasies and end up over thinking it and spoiling the moment when it really happens. It prematurely sucks out that energy from you that you need for living in that moment. It ends worse when other humans get involved in plotting your life, mostly from their viewpoint.

I am now at this stage of life where things are still transitioning, and I am supposed to have a working plan in place. Every day, there’s someone around me constantly asking me to take life seriously and sometimes even trying to help me plan it. And as an only child, it only gets harder, as I have enormous responsibilities on my head now to figure out my life and secure a livelihood.

I stopped planning a long time ago! I started making choices as life happens. I do what makes me happy, with no expectation or clue what comes next. Right or wrong, it’s not boring! I live in the present, and I enjoy that. And as for the unspoilt future, it is so enticing and thrilling. Having experienced this, how could I ruin all this by planning?

*In Yoda’s voice* Planning is the path to the darkness. Planning leads to over thinking. Over thinking leads to contemplating life. Contemplating life leads to depression.

The combination of good and bad (aka not-so-serious) choices is what makes the moments of my life interesting. If I were to plan a secure life ahead and find myself a job that would take the time away from my passion for exploring, I would rather get bitten by a zombie and walk ten thousand kilometres with a computer keyboard in my hand.

Of course, I do need to pay my bills. I have that hope in me that one day, the choices I make now and the things that I do with passion, will find a way for that. But until that day, I will be happy doing what I love, and it’s the only thing that matters in the present.

The future will always happen, and it is inevitable! So why spoil the surprise by planning the damn thing and letting that scheme decide your choices? Let the choices determine the course of your life. Once you start planning and try being a precognitive human, you will only be choosing the stuff that you need to pick and not the ones that you love to.

Make the choices you love while you can! Life may or may not fall in line, but you will figure out what you really love.

An eternal search for a silver lining

My hopes and dreams shall be broken gazillion time, but I’ll always pick them up, stick them together, and keep walking forward. While this may sound inspiring to myself, I fear the long walk of loneliness where I do not know what is down the road for me or know if it ends at all. A scary unobserved variable, waiting to have its chance at me! Even if I stand tall, there will not be a ripple. If I fade into the lightless realms, there will not be a ripple either. A thought for a moment has now turned into a nightmare for the worst to come. Resonate or not, I travel at a constant speed through the spacetime with predicaments, contentment, free will, illusions and solitude to invade my nights. A workable balance between the physical life and the social life is more like a nap on a wall that is too thin to separate the two enigmas. I, as one collective life, chaotically exist, tunneling back and forth, as I soar towards the unknown.

Tales from the future – The light bulb fixation

“I need a light bulb! Can you get me this exact model, please?”

“We’re sorry! We don’t sell the normal ones anymore. Here is a better one. This one’s a smart bulb!”

“What does it do?”

“It can change colors and notify your social communications.”

“But this doesn’t make any sense! I wouldn’t mind checking my notifications on my phone.”

“But you can control it right from your phone. Turn it on or off from your couch, office or anywhere in the world”

“Why would I turn my light on from my office or anywhere in the world?”

“What if you left it on?”

“In the past twenty years, I have never left my lights on. Ever!”

“But this one’s smart!”

“It’s okay! A simple dumb bulb is good for me. Do you know where I can still get it?”

“Nah! People don’t buy those things these days. The company stopped it months ago!”

“Hmm… You leave me no choice. How much is this smart bulb?”

“150 bucks!”

“Woah! It’s okay… I can live with candles!”

“Ooh! We have smart candles too. Would you like to see a demo?”

“What! Even candles? What’s smart about it?”

“It uses batteries for the flame. And you can turn it on and off with your phone too!”

“I still have to change my batteries right?”

“Yup!”

“How is it different from changing the damn candles like normal people do?”

“It’s smart!”

“Fuck you!”

The voice of my existence

“So why the human form?” I asked.

“It’s human… For you!” She replied.

“Again! Why me?”

“You are one of the few who came closer to the threshold. A limit beyond which you could have figured out the whole plan.” She tread, scanning all those dilapidated homes.

“Plan?” I scoffed. “This seems more like a vicious plot. Wouldn’t it make you a terrorizing race?”

She stopped and turned. “You cannot understand this even if I explain in its simplest form. I am not the terrorizing one here. You will be!” She turned back and walked. “Every time, you pick the same choices, and succumb to your own volition, you get closer to the darkness. I am here to prevent that!”

I cracked up hard for a while. I knew it made her angry, but whatever, it was ridiculous. After I calmed myself, I paced ahead. “If I may ask, didn’t you just decide to play god?”

“There!” She pointed. “It’s always the same case. If you don’t understand something, you resort to a meta state of ideas to create something that could sound reasonable for you. In this iteration, if you could have put a little work into thinking beyond that, you could have understood this.”

“For the record, I never said I believed in the idea of god! It is a ridiculous one, yes! But isn’t it the free will of human beings to think so? Some explanation is always better than no explanation. Above all of that! How would you explain yourself?”

This went on for the next twenty or thirty minutes. She thrashed the way we live, I thrashed her for the way she thought about humans and it went on in many directions that opened many chaotic doors. She is here to do what she had done many times and I knew she wouldn’t take a word from our combined thoughts, let alone the words from my stream of thoughts.

“Okay! Okay! You won! Now please stop talking! I have things to do!” I turned to my computer.

She smirked at me for accepting the fact that her argument stood and stopped the simulation. She then switched to the voice and said, “If I ever incarnate to your form, you should know that I am not only wiser than you but stronger too! It’s one little thought for you that crossed the human barrier and now you have an eternal sibling who you can’t punch in the face.”