Assorted links

I fell sick last week and had one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had in my life. It was so bad I couldn’t look at screens even if I longed for them, like cocaine addicts long for cocaine. So I couldn’t get around to writing anything.

I also realized that one of the reasons I started publishing this newsletter was to share interesting links, which I used to do in the beginning but not anymore. I started by sharing links but ended up publishing rambling essays on random things that I got fascinated with in a given week. It wasn’t planned, but something that just ended up happening, and I’m happy that it did.

So this week, I figured I’d share a bunch of amazing articles across different topics so that you can find a rabbit hole to get lost in.

The many joys of aimless reading

The Substack app has become my go-to source for discovering new writing. I don’t know if the app will remain as good as it is, but so far, I’ve found some truly insightful writing on a whole host of topics. I can confidently say that some of the best writers of our time are on Substack. By that, I don’t mean popular writers but rather people with tiny audiences that have yet to hit mainstream.

Every morning, I scroll through the app and save a few posts for reading later. So far, I haven’t been able to read all the posts I’ve saved, but I’ve been trying. This morning, I finally found time to read, and among the first posts I perused was this delightful post (archive) by Jared Henderson that had me nodding along in agreement.

The post is on why students are reading. He starts by pointing to the usual suspects of why people don’t read: the negative impact of the pandemics on students, the testing culture, horrible teaching backed by terrible theories, the ubiquity of smartphones, etc. But he also identifies another crucial reason why we don’t read—we are gatekeeping ourselves:

Gatekeeping is usually conceived of as an interpersonal violation. The gatekeeper is preventing someone else from being included in whatever is at issue. But very often, the person who is preventing you from crossing the bridge (to go back to the troll metaphor) is you. If you want to read The Economist, say, but don’t because you don’t think you fit the profile, then you are your own troll. You are the one doing the gatekeeping, and the person being kept out is you.

And this is what I believe is happening with students and reading, at least in part. They have convinced themselves that they aren’t readers. They have convinced themselves that reading old books, especially difficult old books, is just too arduous, too boring, too pointless. They have convinced themselves that even if the books are good and soul-enriching, there are better things to be doing with their time.

I picked up a reading habit thanks to my dad. He grew up in an environment where he couldn’t read, even though he desperately wanted to, so he put a premium on educating me and my brother. He was also quite smart. He made sure we weren’t just reading textbooks but other random things like magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias, and other books. I still remember trips as a young, runny-nosed kid to Sapna Book House in Gandhinagar on my dad’s rickety Bajaj Chetak.

I’ve always read random things, but after college, I stopped reading books. My reading diet was filled with online reading, but this wasn’t enough. So I made a conscious effort to start reading books again, and now I regret ever stopping.

As someone who’s remarkably average at most things, I’ve realized that life is a steady process of chipping away at one’s ignorance and stupidity. Books help you do that. Of course, you can’t learn everything from books. You’ve gotta live a little and then learn from life. But books are a part of that toolbox that helps you be a little less dumb in life.

Another aspect of the article that resonated with me was the obsession with reading metrics. It’s also something I struggle with, but I’m slowly starting to let go.

We like to measure our successes, and when we don’t measure up we consider it a failure. This carries over into adult reading culture still — people set ambitious reading goals based on books or pages, and they feel good if (and only if) they meet those goals. It’s a metrics-based way of looking at the world. This culture is everywhere, and students are sensitive to it.

Last weekend, when I was sick, I couldn’t look at screens because they made my splitting headaches worse. I also couldn’t read anything dense, so I picked up Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants. I must have devoured the first 300 out of 900 pages over the weekend. As I was reading the book, I remembered the pure joy of reading aimlessly.

Pair this with another brilliant post (archive) by Olga Koutseridi that resonated deeply with me.

In this post, Olga reflects on another post about how she has lost her habit of researching just for the sake of researching, without any specific goal. The post struck a chord with me because exploring without a goal is something I’ve tried to do all my life.

What does research as a way of life look like on a daily basis? It’s a day that’s driven by curiosity and exploration. A day full of inquiry, pondering, questioning, reading, finding, writing, revising, documenting, excavating, and editing. A day when you have the freedom to explore; be it browsing grocery store aisles, talking to urban farmers, cycling through the city, noticing things and how they change, make observations about new and old patterns, talking to people at the bus stop, foraging, or browsing the internet.

I am carving out time for leisure and research. I’m blocking off time on my calendar as leisure blocks, and using that time to download pdfs, make lists of books or cookbooks, organizing and managing my databases, reading, and re-organizing files on my computer, in Notion, and opening way too many tabs. I’m also breaking up my time to do different forms of research be it archival, qualitative research, going to the library (partially leisure), browsing online databases, taking notes, talking and asking people questions, and documenting.

To be honest, for me the whole point of life centers around discovery or a sense of adventure that comes from learning, seeing, or experiencing something new. Research is a way of life for me. I am an endlessly curious person.

Pair this with Rose Macaulay’s exquisite meditation (archive) on being left alone:

An exquisite peace obtains: a drowsy, golden peace, flowing honey-sweet over my dwelling, soaking it, dripping like music from the walls, strowing the floors like trodden herbs. A peace for gods; a divine emptiness.


The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand… The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf on to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom from which pretenders have taken their leave.

What to do with all this luscious peace? It is a gift, a miracle, a golden jewel, a fragment of some gracious heavenly order, dropped to earth like some incredible strayed star. One’s life to oneself again. Dear visitors, what largesse have you given, not only in departing, but in coming, that we might learn to prize your absence, wallow the more exquisitely in the leisure of your not-being.

How does an egg become a person?

How does a single cell become a full-grown human being capable of running, climbing mountains, and generating farts of varying smells? In this fascinating post (archive), Kasra explores the work of developmental and synthetic biologist Michael Levin.

Back to the question of how a cell becomes a person: Our genes aren’t the full answer. Apparently, cells have bioelectrical networks similar to neurons in the brain that allow them to communicate and coordinate. These bioelectrical networks, from what I understand, are like cell phone networks. They talk to each other using this network to decide whether they should develop into a leg, liver, or kidney.

The worm is just one example: Levin’s lab and others have already demonstrated an astonishing level of control over development by modulating bioelectric networks. They’ve done things like getting frogs to develop extra limbs, and getting them to develop an eye in their gut, or an eye in their tail that they can actually see out of. The end goal that Levin dreams of is an “anatomical compiler” – a program which takes as input a specification for an arbitrary organ or body plan, and outputs the specific set of chemical and electrical signals needed to generate that organ. Imagine 3-d printing entire synthetic organs and organisms, except instead of having to specify all the micro-level details, you can just give a high-level description like “an extra eye at the tail.” This is Dall-E but for biology. And in the very long run, it could be the answer to virtually all of biomedicine, including traumatic injury, birth defects, degenerative disease, cancer, and aging.6

So on a practical level, the impact of Levin’s work is a shift away from genes as the only determinant of structure, shifting instead towards the bioelectric network. But there’s a broader thesis here, which is recognizing that the terms “intelligence” and “cognition” apply to much more of biology than we tend to think. The very process of development has an intelligence of its own: for example, if you take a tadpole (the precursor to a frog), and manually scramble its facial organs, those facial organs will relocate back to the correct place as the tadpole matures.

Fascinating stuff, but I’m not qualified to judge if this is all accurate.


One of the weird things about being human is that we are never content with what we have, where we are, who we are, who we are with, or what we want. We think the present state of everything sucks and strive for some ideal of perfection that lies in the future. Because of this tendency, even though we are physically in the present, we mentally live in the future. I enjoyed this beautiful and thought-provoking post (archive) by Isabel.

Much of maturity is this slow, burning realization that the Inner Ring is never quite as glamorous, sparkly, or magical as you think it will be—and noticing that what you already have is pretty damn good. You go somewhere beautiful and glamorous, but feel relieved to come back home to the people you love. You move somewhere to make new friends, but are eager to come back to those who know you deeply already. Maturing is this process of realizing that where you are, the people you’re around, the blessings you have, the city you live in—contain so much abundance that you could hardly behold it if you were to pause and feel it fully.

There will always be something shiny, glossy and new that stirs desire in you. This is the world we live in: we are mimetically inducing desires into each other constantly—a phenomenon that was happening long before we had coined the label ‘influencers’. Since the beginning of time, we have been imitating those at the top of the hierarchy, desiring the objects and symbols possessed by those inside the Inner Ring.

And hey, don’t get me wrong: desires can be fun. Striving, pursuing, attaining are all natural aspects of being human. But we don’t always need to be in pursuit, yearning for more. We can build resilience to this constant onslaught of desire. There is a way to pause and float above it all, to be where you are, to enjoy what you already have.

We’ve all forgotten how to stop and smell the roses.

Pair this post with another all-time favorite post (archive) of mine by Hadden Turner.

But perhaps the most important reason I must return my gaze to Chelmsford is that this city, its people, and its wildlife lay a claim on me — a claim of responsibility which every inhabitant of every city, town or village has — to do good to the place you are in and one day leave it in a more convivial state than you first came to it. Where you are is where you are — and is where you must be4. As Wendell Berry wisely once said “Do you think it could be a general rule that the only place one is urgently needed is at home?” The more I have pondered these wise words, the more heartily I find myself answering “yes”.

Effective altruism or bullshit?

I’m halfway through this brilliant essay (archive) on effective altruism by P. Jordan Anderson it’s both brilliant and dense. It’s a wonderful primer to one of the most viral charitable moments of the 21st century. Pair it with David Pinsof’s brilliant post (archive):

You’ve gotta live it

An insightful and thoughtful post (archive) by Alex Perez on why most journalism has gone to shit. He argues that journalism was once dominated by people from ordinary and working-class backgrounds, but it’s now filled with people who can afford elite degrees and have lived relatively cosseted lives. When you no longer have people who understand cultural realities, class conflicts, and racial inequalities, you get journalism that is not just puerile but also one-dimensional.

You see the dumb opinions that result from an inability to understand the lived reality of the vast majority of people in Indian media as well. Snotty, elitist opinions, and ceaseless pontification about social matters that one couldn’t remotely fathom from the comfort of one’s privilege.

The relative absence of the adjacent figure in mainstream media—whether on the progressive or conservative side—has resulted in a sterilized environment, of two bubbles perpetually battling each other. It’s always been difficult for the adjacent figure to penetrate the elite world, but as the two bubbles have consolidated in their mutual obsession with each other, the marginal critic has been squeezed out. The difficulty lies in the ability of the adjacent figure to navigate disparate social scenes with the necessary authenticity to be allowed entry. He must understand the norms and nuances of elite culture, while simultaneously keeping a foot in the lower classes. It isn’t a matter of merely code-switching, as the differences between elite and non-elite go beyond conversational differences; it involves the far more difficult task of status switching—navigating between the rich world and the poor world. The adjacent figure, in elite spaces, may look the part and even sound the part, but something will always be slightly off. Maybe he still doesn’t know which fork to use or how to feel comfortable around old money. When the journalism world was slightly more working-class, the status switch wasn’t as difficult to navigate, but now a lower-class outsider must be attuned to the perpetually shifting language rules and norms. It probably isn’t worth the work for the outsider, and so he tends to leave, and the bubble consolidates again. Meanwhile, the status switch upon returning to the non-elite-world is just as jarring. 

Other notable reads

What Would Make Americans Eat Better? (archive)

India Steps Back From the Brink (archive)

Ecuador’s Risky War on Narcos (archive)