Category: Weblogs

How do the NIH and NSF work?

A surprising number of individuals responded to my post last week soliciting books about the NIH and NSF.  Thank you to those who did and please do still feel free to reach out on this matter.

It became apparent that a highly complementary effort would be a Substack/blog/podcast/similar about the inner workings of the NIH / NSF, and indeed other institutions relevant to the modern-day administration and practice of science.  Think SCOTUSblog or Macro Musings, but focused on the NIH/NSF/etc.

So, if you would like to start such a blog/podcast/newsletter, please email me, and that plan will be considered for financial support.

Blog and Substack contest winners

To date there are three:

1. Anton Howes for his Substack Age of Invention.  He is a historian of invention, often but not exclusively focusing on the eighteenth century, here is Anton on Twitter.  As a separate matter, don’t forget Anton’s excellent recent book Arts & Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation.

2. Works in Progress.  Here is their About page: “Works in Progress is a new online magazine dedicated to sharing novel ideas and stories of progress, and features original writing from some of the most interesting thinkers in the world.”  The major individuals behind Works in Progress are Sam Bowman, Saloni Dattani, Ben Southwood, and Nick Whitaker, all with bios at the previous link, all strong intellectual forces.

Note also: “Works in Progress is always looking for new writers for upcoming issues and our blog. Reach out if you want to talk about writing for us, with a short summary or abstract of your piece.”

3. Alice Evans, lecturer at King’s College London.  Here is Alice on Twitter.  She is working on “”THE GREAT GENDER DIVERGENCE” What explains global variation in gender relations?” and here is her related blog on that same topic.  Here is her famous post on gender relations in north vs. south India.  Her home page also links to her podcast.

I do expect there will be further awards, and I will keep you posted (here is the original announcement).  If you just started writing a blog and submitted, you may still be in the running for the future. In the meantime, congratulations to these winners!

My Conversation with Matt Yglesias

Substantive, interesting, and fun throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  For more do buy Matt’s new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  Here is the CWT summary:

They discussed why it’s easier to grow Tokyo than New York City, the governance issues of increasing urban populations, what Tyler got right about pro-immigration arguments, how to respond to declining fertility rates, why he’d be happy to see more people going to church (even though he’s not religious), why liberals and conservatives should take marriage incentive programs more seriously, what larger families would mean for feminism, why people should read Robert Nozick, whether the YIMBY movement will be weakened by COVID-19, how New York City will bounce back, why he’s long on Minneapolis, how to address constitutional ruptures, how to attract more competent people to state and local governments, what he’s learned growing up in a family full of economists, his mother’s wisdom about visual design and more.

Here is one excerpt:

It was so much fun we even ran over the allotted time, we had to discuss Gilbert Arenas too.

Caleb Watney emails me

Hey Tyler,

Wanted to let you know that Alec Stapp and I are launching a new blog today called Agglomerations where we’ll be covering a wide range of tech + innovation policy issues.

My first piece today ties to disentangle technology, innovation, and industrial policy, as I feel the conversations there have been quite muddled as of late. I hope you enjoy it.

Emergent Ventures prizes for best new and recent blogs — Liberalism 2.0 fellows

In recent years, blogs and blog-like entities have proved one of the most effective ways of debating and advancing worldviews and debating ideas. Slate Star Codex, Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, The Money Illusion, and Paul Graham’s essays are all influential examples. SSC introduced much of the world to the rationalist movement and Effective Altruism. The Dish was at the forefront of the intellectual case for gay marriage. With NGDP targeting, The Money Illusion successfully articulated the case for improvements in monetary policy. Paul Graham’s essays are part of the intellectual firmament behind the explosion of startups over the past 15 years. One could also look to Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, which popularized the subscription newsletter business model and provides some of the very best tech industry commentary. There is now a growing industry of independent Substacks, with Bill Bishop’s Sinocism an influential example.

In 2020, there is an undimmed need for new thinking around how the ideals of liberty and reason can best be applied. You need barely scratch the surface in our prevailing ideologies to find central questions almost completely unaddressed.

Surely better education is an important society-wide goal — but what is the liberal remedy to the failure of our public institutions (like education and healthcare) to generate improvements remotely commensurate with cost increases? Libertarianism remains a valuable critique, but what is a libertarian perspective on why the US can’t develop a COVID-19 vaccine more quickly, or why US universities are so homogeneous and ideological? Conservatives may take exception at the excesses of the so-called social justice movement — but what is a positive and properly balanced theory for how to right various inefficient (and unjust) social wrongs? Advocates for the free market will be biased against restrictions on cross-border trade, but should Indonesia not conclude that industrial policy was of high efficacy for many countries in northeast Asia? Those of a non-interventionist disposition may not worry too much about Taiwan’s near-term security, but would it not be a mistake to neglect the possibility that China’s rise may pose a growing threat to Taiwanese liberty?

It is tempting to believe that we must simply hew more closely to the works of the greats. In closer exegesis and more faithful obeisance to our Bentham, our Mill, our Smith, our Marx, our Hayek, or our Friedman, we’ll find the answers that we seek.

But there is an alternative and more appealing vision, namely that we need new ideas, new syntheses, and new arguments. That said, we need more argumentation and exposition than you will find on Twitter alone.

We therefore invite submissions to a new blog contest, as part of Emergent Ventures (Mercatus Center, George Mason University). Eligible entries:

– Are blogs or blog-like isomorphs. (Posts are reasonably frequent; content is freely available and linkable; at least some posts are mini-essays. Substacks do count, if freely available, noting you are not prohibited from later turning them into profit-making ventures.)

– Started in the past 12 months, or in the next six months.

– Explore ideas relevant to liberty, prosperity, progress, and the foundations of a free society.

“Web 2.0” was a coarse label applied to a broad set of software trends. In a similarly incompletely defined and unapologetic manner, and in homage to the internet-native aspect of these blogs, winners shall be deemed Liberalism 2.0 Fellows.

Within six months, and quite possibly sooner, an initial $100,000 prize will be awarded. Five further awards up to or at a comparable level will be possible if there are enough high-quality submissions (blogs started after this announcement are thus more likely to win the later awards, given the time to prove excellence, though in principle eligible for the first award too). To apply, simply email [email protected], with winners to be announced on Marginal Revolution. Please note that entries will not be acknowledged and only winners will be notified.

I look forward to seeing what you all come up with.

What should I ask Matt Yglesias?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, based in part on his new forthcoming book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  While I have not yet read it, I strongly expect it will be excellent.

And to be clear, this will be the conversation with Matt I want to have, not the one that you might think you wish to hear.

So what should I ask?

Who is excellent and why?

A few of you have written in and asked me why some people, such as Kevin Lewis and Samir Varma, are designated as say “the excellent Kevin Lewis” on Marginal Revolution.

It is simple — I view this recognition as resulting from a combination of their intelligence and persistence, and thus their excellence in finding and sending me links and interesting commentary.  (I have met them both, and they do seem to have other virtues, but those other virtues are not the ones being recognized here.)  The word is completely unironic.  I view “belief in excellence” as one of the underlying philosophies of MR, and also belief in the notion that excellence should be mentioned and promoted.

In this sense, those designations are quite similar to the ongoing series “My Favorite Things [xxxx]“.

This designation of excellence is also related to why MR does not spend a great deal of time on all of the political depredations of our time.  Yes, they are important, but I fear that focusing on them too much would a) make me stupider, and b) distract from an underlying vision of excellence I wish to communicate.  I am too selfish to wish to be made stupider in that manner.

More generally, for any media source you are reading, what is the underlying vision of excellence?  Or are they just pukers?

If you can trace their underlying vision of excellence (or lack thereof), you will understand much of their material much better.

My Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein

Eric and his team describe it as follows:

In this episode, Eric sits down with Tyler Cowen to discuss how/why a Harvard educated chess prodigy would choose a commuter school to launch a stealth attack on the self-satisfied economic establishment, various forms of existential risk, tech/social stagnation and more. On first glance, Tyler Cowen is an unlikely candidate for America’s most influential economist. Since 2003, Cowen has grown his widely read and revered economics blog Marginal Revolutions with lively thought, insight and prose resulting in a successful war of attrition against traditional thinking. In fact, his well of heterodox thinking is so deep that there is an argument to be made that Tyler may be the living person with the most diverse set of original rigorous opinions to be found in any conversation. The conversation takes many turns and is thus hard to categorize. We hope you enjoy it.

I recall it being about 2.5 hours long, and covering a lot of fresh material, Eric of course is superb.  Here is the link.  Here is the broader set of Portal podcasts, hosted by Eric.

My Conversation with Henry Farrell

An excellent episode, here is the audio and transcript.  We ranged far and wide, starting with Huawei and weaponized interdependence, moving later to the Facebook supreme court, Karl Polanyi, Ireland, and Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Arguably, dominant firms are easier to regulate. And since you seem to favor some kinds of additional regulation on the major tech companies, does this mean we’re too worried about monopoly, that we actually want to keep around a few dominant firms, and that if we split them up into many small parts, there would be more chaos or more fake news or more privacy violations?

If some parts of what they do are bad, and you get more competition in the bad, don’t we just want to put in GDPR barriers to entry, not quite public utilities, but keep them big and fat and happy and somewhat not so dynamic, yes or no?

FARRELL: It depends on what you value.

COWEN: But what you value.

FARRELL: Yeah. Let me put the tradeoff to you this way. If you value security, if the highlight is on security, then the answer is, you probably want to keep big companies around because you’re going to want to impose broad standards. You’re going to want to create collective security goods, and the only actors that can really do that in a substantial way are big businesses of one sort or another.

If, alternatively, you value things like privacy and other kinds of rights, then you probably want to move towards an equilibrium in which there are far, far fewer big firms. So that’s where I see the fight being played out. I see the fight being played out between people who value security and people who value privacy. I think they point in somewhat different directions.

COWEN: And where are you on that spectrum?

FARRELL: Well, it depends on the time of the day, and I find myself —

COWEN: It is 2:22 p.m.


FARRELL: Well, I guess the question for me is — and again, this is a wide open question because we simply don’t have enough good empirical research — but what is the relationship and the broader ecology between companies like 8chan and companies like Facebook? I suspect that companies like 8chan will be far, far less successful if there weren’t much bigger platforms like Facebook that they could effectively grow upon.

So here are the arguments, something as follows. If you think about 8chan, and if you think about 4chan before it, they were basically meme factories. They were basically these places where these bored individuals hung out. You also created these memes in a kind of process of frenzied Darwinian evolution, where you desperately want to make sure that whatever you had said was on the front page because otherwise it would disappear forever. So you’ve got this survival-of-the-fittest thing, where incredibly valuable or incredibly effective memes go out and begin to populate the entire space.

But you need two things for that to work. First of all, you need a process of generation, and secondly, you need some kind of process of dissemination. You need other platforms which have far greater reach, which can then allow for these memes to propagate through the atmosphere.

I suspect that if we were in a world in which everything was at the scale of 8chan, rather than having a mixture of companies at the scale of 8chan and companies at the scale of Facebook, that the likelihood of this stuff spreading and becoming epidemic across the entire community of internet users would be far, far less. Obviously, we would have other problems then. But I think that the problems that we would face would be a very, very different set of problems from the problems that we face in the current environment.


FARRELL: Yes. [Gene] Wolfe misleads us systematically, and clearly Severian is not a reliable narrator, but then neither is Proust’s narrator either. I think that if you really want to understand where Wolfe comes from, it really is Proust. His writing style is Proustian. His concern with time, with how it is that time works, is quintessentially Proustian.

And you don’t look to Wolfe any more than you look to other science fiction for characterization. I don’t think that’s the particular strength. What you do look for is a kind of a sense of the world. And in Wolfe, in particular, he provides this real understanding of how it is that the workings of society, and interestingly, conservative understanding of the workings of society.

I think of him almost as being Proust in reverse. Proust is describing a world in which the modern world is overtaking aristocracy. And that clearly is one of the great problems of Proust, what is happening on the social level. You have all of these aristocratic understandings: the Merovingian, all of these histories, all of these castles, all of this wonderful art, and they are being replaced by the modern world with its telephones, with its electric lighting, and so on.

And how do you think about this? How would you try to preserve what was happening in the past? What Wolfe does, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting thing, which would be impossible for anybody who is not a science fiction writer, is to take that and to reverse this and to imagine a world in which modernity has disappeared.


What should I ask Henry Farrell?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event.  As you read blogs, you might know Henry’s longstanding work over at CrookedTimber, and also his role in Monkey Cage.  Henry is also professor of political science at George Washington University, has with Abraham L. Newman recently published a path-breaking book on the increasingly important concept of weaponized interdependence, is an expert on comparative labor relations, and is an all-around polymath, including on fiction, science fiction, and the politics of Ireland, his home country.  Here is his home page.

So what should I ask Henry?