Conversations with Tyler 2021 Retrospective (Ep. 139)

After being featured on Ancient Aliens, where does the show go from here?

On this special year-in-review episode, Tyler and producer Jeff Holmes talk about the past year on the show, including one episode’s appearance on Ancient Aliens, Tyler’s picks for most underrated guests, how his 2021 predictions fared from last year’s retrospective, further reflections on the most downloaded — and most polarizing — episode of the year, how David Deutsch influenced Tyler’s opinions of Karl Popper, why he thinks his interviews with women tend to be better, and more. They also evaluate Tyler’s pop culture picks from 2011, play “Name that Production Function,” and answer listener questions from Twitter.

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Listen to the full conversation

You can also watch a video of the conversation here.

Read the full transcript

JEFF HOLMES: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Conversations with Tyler. My name is Jeff Holmes. I am not Tyler, but I produce Conversations with Tyler, and we’re doing our 2021 year-end review. This is the third time we’ve done it. Tyler, to start it off, I just have to say, it’s great to see you in person.

TYLER COWEN: Good to see you in person as well. I have tested negative five times this week.

HOLMES: I feel incredibly safe then. I will not develop a cough or a scratchy throat on my way home, I take it.

The last time I saw you was April of 2020 here in this studio, actually. We were recording the Tetlock episode, and that was the last time, I think, we’ve seen each other.

COWEN: Amazing.

HOLMES: To start, I thought the question everyone wants to know, Tyler, is how has life changed for you since you were featured on Ancient Aliens on the History Channel?

COWEN: I didn’t even know I was featured on Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. I will say, in a variety of public settings, people ask me what are my latest thoughts about UFOs, and that’s the main way in which my life has changed.

It seems to be, now, quite clear that the data the Navy is picking up are real. It’s not a mistake of the instruments or bad eyewitness reports. That doesn’t mean the UFOs are aliens. I give that something ranging between 1 percent and 10 percent, depending on my mood on a given day. But it seems to me a major puzzle, no matter what it is, and it should change all of our lives more than it does.

HOLMES: Last year when we were talking, you mentioned — we’re referring to the John Brennan episode where this came up. I had not listened to the episode yet, but you said, “John Brennan talks about UFOs. It’s going to be big.” And it was quite big. It got picked up a lot. And yes, you were on Ancient Aliens, Season 16, Episode 9, in fact.

COWEN: Were they nice to me or did they mock me?

HOLMES: They throw to the clip, but it’s very odd to see you and John Brennan on Conversations with Tyler in this studio, virtually. You’re in the studio, Brennan is virtual, but you’re just sitting there, and Brennan is talking about aliens.

COWEN: Marginal Revolution University is now in a Nobel lecture, right? It’s a strange world we live in.

HOLMES: This is all going to plan. In other words, this is very much in the 10-year plan for Mercatus Center comms, and I’m glad to see it’s paying off.

COWEN: Whose simulation are we living in, right? That’s the updating we need.

HOLMES: Actually, that was a Twitter question. I’ll go ahead and ask it. Are we living in a simulation? This was prompted by the David Deutsch conversation.

COWEN: I’m never sure what it means to be living in a simulation. If there’s a high school kid with a project, and the project is to simulate a lot of beings, then it’s well defined. But is the universe as a whole a simulation, I don’t think has a comparably clear answer. If you view the universe as somehow just being about computation in the broadest sense of the word, it seems under all scenarios, the universe as a whole, properly construed, is a kind of simulation. In that sense, are we living in a simulation? Almost certainly.

Are we the product of somebody’s experiment? That seems less likely to me. I simply think that civilizations tend to perish before they can create these truly grand simulations. The Bayesian reasoning of “Well, each civilization creates so many civilizations, you need to reason backwards and assume you’re in one,” I don’t think that works, so basically, no. But the medieval point that, in some sense, the universe is a simulation in the mind of God — can you treat the mind of God as a simulation, and so on. At the macro level, people, I think, are confusing those two questions rather too quickly.

HOLMES: Has Robin Hanson’s paper on grabby aliens influenced you at all on this, in terms of civilizational collapse and things like that?

COWEN: I think, in Robin’s work on grabby aliens, he’s trying to infer too much from seeing nothing. In my view, we know so little about the parameters of the problem that what we can infer from seeing nothing is pretty close to nothing. We don’t quite see nothing. You asked me about UFOs before — maybe that’s only a 1 percent chance that it’s some product of an alien civilization.

No, I think we are mostly in the dark when it comes to grand speculations about the universe and how settled it is with life. So I don’t agree with Robin’s work, but I’m glad he did it. It’s very thought-provoking.

On predictions in the 2020 retrospective

HOLMES: We may be in the dark about whether we’re alone in the universe and the future of civilization, but we’re less in the dark about some predictions you made this time last year.

COWEN: Uh-oh. [laughs]

HOLMES: I thought we could revisit them and see how they fared.

COWEN: Let’s try. Let’s hope I can remember the actual reality, as well as the prediction.

HOLMES: Last year, I asked when you’d have your first normal movie theater experience, where you just buy a ticket, you show up, you don’t know anyone else, you’re not renting the theater.

COWEN: And don’t rent out the whole theater, which is what I was doing.

HOLMES: Correct. You suggested it would just be three weeks after your second dose or whenever you had achieved full immunity. Do you remember when you saw that first movie and what it was?

COWEN: I don’t remember what the movie was. I strongly expect I went to the movies as soon as I could, which would be two, three weeks after the second dose. I think my second dose was March 1, so probably sometime in March. There wasn’t much to see, you know, but I was willing to see crap, but I don’t remember.

HOLMES: How many movies did you see in a theater this year, roughly?

COWEN: I would guess 30.

HOLMES: Thirty!

COWEN: A fair number.

HOLMES: I saw three.

[laughter]

COWEN: You saw three? You have small children though.

HOLMES: Yes, and one of them was with the small child, and it was a great experience. It was her first movie theater experience, so it was fun to have the opportunity to do that. That was, in fact, my first back-to-the-movies experience, watching Raya and the Last Dragon, for anyone who’s wondering at home.

COWEN: I went on a binge once I could. What can I say? Intertemporal substitution, right?

HOLMES: Yes. I also asked about the first in-person Conversations with Tyler in general, the first one-on-one interview in person. You suggested it would be in February. In fact, it was in June, and it was with Alexander the Grate.

COWEN: But that was outside. He lives outside.

HOLMES: It would have had to be in-person and outside regardless of COVID, actually.

COWEN: Correct, I hadn’t foreseen that. He is a man without permanent residence. Is that the proper way to —

HOLMES: No fixed address.

COWEN: No fixed address. True of us all in the longer run.

HOLMES: Then in terms of a live CWT, where we have a live audience, we both thought we would do one in 2021, but in fact, the first one we’re doing is going to be in January. That is going to be just for Mercatus folks. It’s not even going to be open to the public. It will still be somewhat of a closed event.

COWEN: We didn’t foresee Delta, like many other people. Otherwise, I think we would have had one.

HOLMES: Yes, I was going to ask, what did those predictions about CWT, in particular, reveal to you about the state of what we were assuming would come in 2021?

COWEN: Well, as second doses were becoming available, my modal prediction was that there wouldn’t be a major new variant of import. I certainly was aware of the possibility, but I thought, by very late in the year, we’d have a vaccine mandate and have in maybe not a huge audience somewhere for a guest. But with Delta and now Omicron, it’s still not going to happen for a while. That’s what I got wrong.

HOLMES: Let’s go through the numbers on Conversations with Tyler. This will be the last episode of the year, and we’ll have released 27 episodes with a possibility of a 28th because you’re potentially doing a bonus episode with Russ Roberts. If that releases in December, that’ll be the 28th of the year. How many do you think we did in person?

COWEN: Is it zero?

HOLMES: No, it’s not zero because there’s Alexander the Grate.

COWEN: Oh, there’s David Rubenstein, Alexander the Grate. I guess I’ll say two.

HOLMES: You’re missing David Salle. Three.

COWEN: Of course, David Salle. That was a good episode — in his studio.

HOLMES: In his studio. Obviously, I think you would have predicted, for reasons we’ve just gone over, that we would have done more in person, but —

COWEN: We could have done more, but it just turned out to be okay enough to do them not in person, and other people were afraid even if we weren’t.

HOLMES: Right, and I think, like a lot of people, we’re learning that the benefits to remote are the logistics are easier, the access is greater. I would expect going forward, we’ll save the in-person, maybe, for special guests. But the remote has really worked out well in terms of giving us access to a more diverse set of guests.

COWEN: It’s easier to be snippy with people remote. That may be good or it may be bad, but I find that’s one difference. But for me, a big motive in doing these is getting to meet the people. Remote, in that sense, makes it less desirable for me. I’m still going to do them, but I miss meeting all the people. And I like airports, actually.

HOLMES: Really?

COWEN: I genuinely, honestly do. [laughs]

HOLMES: Yet I seem to recall in your interview with Larissa MacFarquhar, you talked about how if you could have one superpower ability — I can’t quite remember how it was framed, but you said just eliminating — instantly being able to travel to a place.

COWEN: Oh, sure. That’s like getting to Uzbekistan. If we’re flying to Albany to see Lydia Davis or something, it’s not nearly as hard. I wouldn’t say I like flying, but I do like airports.

HOLMES: Airports are underrated, I agree.

COWEN: The food in them has gotten better and better.

HOLMES: What’s your favorite airport for food?

COWEN: Singapore, obviously. Chicago — I like pizza, and so on. Most airports now are pretty good for food. They’re good enough.

HOLMES: Atlanta used to have a very good restaurant, One Flew South. I’m not sure how good it is in the past few years, but it was excellent.

In August, you wrote, “A podcast really works when it is the dramatic unfolding of a story and mood between the guest and host.” In September, we had our most downloaded episode.

COWEN: That was Amia Srinivasan?

HOLMES: Yes. What was your intended story or mood there? And how do you think it diverged from what was actually perceived by the audience?

COWEN: She gave much more what you might call fundamental pushback to my questions than I was expecting. I thought it made for a very good podcast. I really liked it. I think she’s super smart. If someone wants to fight a war over the terms of discourse, my view is, bring it on. One should respect that.

I thought it would be much more an internal exploration of aspects of different arguments, and it wasn’t. It was “How can you even ask this question?” response from her. That was a bit new for Conversations with Tyler, but again, that’s great, one of my favorite episodes of the year. People either hated it or got very upset at her, or some of her fans maybe hated me. But that’s a sign it had some resonance.

HOLMES: It did have resonance. I was not aware of it until I looked at the stats. I knew that there was chatter about it online, but it’s the most downloaded. And also the retention, the amount people listened to was quite high, too. They weren’t listening to it and turning it off in disgust. They were actually listening to almost all of it, in fact, on average.

COWEN: Many people are remembering that podcast. That’s my sense. People still talk to me about it, write me about it.

HOLMES: How would you describe your interview style? I’m talking in particular with her. Do you think that it was your style as an interviewer that caused that to go somewhat off the rails?

COWEN: I don’t know. I think my style for my conversation with her was a little bit different. If someone does philosophy at an abstract level, they’re virtually asking or forcing you to challenge them more than would be the case, say, if you’re interviewing a CEO or a general. So I thought it was a respect to her argument to try to challenge its premises, empirically or otherwise.

That’s not the case with, say, Pierpaolo Barbieri, who has a startup. I asked him about his sector, but I was asking him to explain to us how it works. It was very different, but relative to her being a philosopher, I don’t think it was so different. I think that’s how you should interview a philosopher you respect.

HOLMES: I think you could say that your interview style is very masculine because it tends to be more abstract and about getting to the point, “what do you really think about this?” But also, that’s a more philosophical approach.

COWEN: More Socratic.

HOLMES: Right, so one thing I think drove some of the reaction to it — the negative reaction — was exactly that, which is there was a feeling that it didn’t follow what the standard should be, given her profession. Do you think that’s fair? Or as you said, you were happy she pushed back, but should people do that more?

COWEN: When people interview philosophers, they should take them more seriously and actually try to get it, whether their propositions are correct. It seems to me, too many people stick in the typical interview mode of, “Tell us what’s in your latest book.” Or “What’s up with these incels anyway?” Or “How does this argument imply feminism should evolve for the next century?” Which are okay questions, but they’re too open-ended. They’re inviting a blathery response.

When I interviewed Richard Prum, the ornithologist — anyone who does birds, you figure is looking for some specific, pointed questions about birds, and he got those. Maybe he was the only one who got an interview like that. Relative to him being an ornithologist, he still got the Tyler Cowen style.

HOLMES: The one thing I’ll say is, I was very happy to see that it was, in fact, so well downloaded and listened to. We definitely see in the stats that listeners are not willing to give certain episodes a chance. One of the factors is maybe the topic’s a little more obscure, but it’s pretty clear that one of the factors is also whether they’re a woman.

COWEN: Yes, one of the great injustices of podcast life — underreported.

HOLMES: I will say, this year, it’s better news. I think actually the female guests who were featured this year — Patricia Fara, Sarah Parcak — they all did pretty well. But perhaps it was also aided by the fact that they were talking about things that speak to a typically male audience. It was the classics and Newton and archeology. But when you have someone who’s talking about feminism, “Well, maybe I’ll skip that one. That’s not what I want. I already know what that’s going to be about.”

COWEN: I think, on average, the women on Conversations with Tyler do better than the men. The difference, on average, is they’re rarely or never willing to just be a blowhard. They always feel they have to say something of actual substance. It’s interesting that that is the difference, but I prefer the podcasts with women, as a whole.

HOLMES: I would say, as a simple heuristic, if you, listener, are considering skipping an episode, that is, in fact, a good sign that you should absolutely listen to it. I think that —

COWEN: But only for our podcast, not for other people’s podcasts.

HOLMES: Fair enough, I’ll say for our podcast. Though I feel like that’s been generally true for me. You are subscribing to a show, in part, because you are recognizing the host’s ability to curate or select people who are interesting, certainly for Conversations with Tyler, but for a number of other interview shows as well. By virtue of that guest being on the podcast, that’s a certain certification that you should spend some time with them.

Now, for other shows, there’s more of the grind of production, like “We have to get an episode out.” Maybe, “This person’s just got a book to promote, and I don’t have a personal connection.” But you’re very much on the record of saying you don’t have anyone on that you don’t actually want to learn from.

COWEN: That may not be true anymore, by the way, but I’m not going to name names.

[laughter]

COWEN: Some people ask you, and you figure you should do it. They’re very famous. How can I say no? It may bring in some new listeners, but I’m not sure I can say that about every podcast this year.

HOLMES: To say that another way, I think if you were looking for the overrated episodes of Conversations with Tyler, you would not be looking at the women this year.

COWEN: Correct. It’s the famous people who sometimes are a bit the ones to be suspicious of. Just compensating differentials.

HOLMES: We talked a little bit about overrated. What’s your pick for underrated episodes?

COWEN: I don’t see the listened-to numbers. The Ruth Scurr one on Napoleon in 18th-century history was excellent. I’m not sure it’s incredibly popular, but that’s probably underrated. David Salle — a lot of people just are not connected to the visual arts and painting. That’s probably an underrated episode. Richard Prum, the bird guy — I thought he was one of the very best of the year. People like Chris Blattman loved it, but I’m not sure in terms of numbers. I thought we had these three in a row — Sarah Parcak, Dana Gioia, Shadi Bartsch — the three best CWTs in a row ever, and I hope people realize they got that from us.

HOLMES: I think my two picks would be Richard Prum, which definitely underperformed a little bit. I think people maybe just said, “Ornithology, birds — what do I care?” But you’re really missing quite a lot by skipping that episode. The other one, I would submit, is Dana Gioia. For me, the thing that unites some of the very good ones — I would count Ruth Scurr in this as well, but Prum, Gioia — they all had such passion and enthusiasm, and they so clearly still loved what they were doing, that it is just impossible not to pick up on that enthusiasm and decide, “I think I should . . .”

After I listened to Prum, I started looking at all the birds in my backyard. I have 20 varieties of birds in my backyard. Who would have thought? Gioia — I felt like my life was impoverished because I couldn’t appreciate the things on a level that . . . He just seems like a person who consumes it. You call him an information billionaire, and it’s exactly right. He seems to have this wealth that he knows how to use. Listening to those was wonderful.

COWEN: Dana Gioia, along with, possibly, Niall Ferguson — he’s the guest we’ve had where you can ask him literally anything, and he has a good, coherent answer. There aren’t many guests like that. I appreciate that he’s one of them. He’s to the point with it as well.

HOLMES: What’s remarkable is, he sent you an email afterwards, saying, “Thank you. It was a wonderful interview.” He said that he had felt like he was in a fog, and this conversation helped him break out a little bit of that fog. For someone who was in a fog, that interview is remarkable, but also the fact that we’re all in a fog. Empathizing with him in that way, that even this guy who gets so much joy out of things was still feeling a little down on himself, was amazing to me.

On naming production functions

HOLMES: All right, are you up for some “name that production function”? Your favorite segment.

COWEN: I’m hardly going to get any of these correct.

HOLMES: Your favorite segment, and for listeners as well. Okay, let’s see. First one: “I think I’ve always been good at finding things. I don’t know if it’s because I’m just good at pattern recognition, but even when I was five, six, seven years old, I could go to a whole patch of clover and reach in and find the four-leaf clover.”

COWEN: That sounds like Sarah Parcak, the space archaeologist.

HOLMES: That’s right.

COWEN: Did I actually get one?

HOLMES: You got it right. She’s a space archaeologist, so her visual acuity with pattern recognition is something that she still uses to this day. So who would have thought you can pick a four-leaf clover out and make a career out of it?

All right, one for one. Good job.

COWEN: I have that same ability, by the way. I can see a big shelf full of books and immediately find a single title.

HOLMES: Is that a general ability? Or is it very specific to text, for instance?

COWEN: I think it’s general to the visual, not only text, is my sense. I got a chessboard — that’s not text, but I have a reasonable ability there as well to see a combination, say.

HOLMES: All right, second one. This is an anti-production function. “I’ll tell you what I am not very good at. I don’t think I’m the most inspiring or compelling person. I’ve gotten a lot of practice at it over the years, but in terms of the early days, in terms of fundraising and pitching people and recruiting, I was never very good at that, B, B minus. I was enough to get to the next stage, but I never ended up being world-class.”

COWEN: Is that Brian Armstrong?

HOLMES: That’s Brian Armstrong.

COWEN: He’s underrating himself, but that’s fine.

HOLMES: He gave himself some credit for talent recognition and managerial ability, I think it was, but he just doesn’t think he’s got the charisma that he feels he should.

COWEN: But his earnestness comes through, as indeed it did on that podcast, and he may be underrating how much other people value his earnestness.

HOLMES: All right, two for two. Here’s the third one. “The instrument that I play is really just dialogue and discourse. I’ve got a strongly evolutionary mindset and this notion of emergence. I think that if you’re doing something that’s never been done before, you have to be very humble, recognizing that you don’t know what the right thing to do is, but also nobody else does. In that milieu, you need to create a culture where people are willing to say things and be wrong so that others can say other things, and over time, whatever is right can emerge.”

COWEN: I’ve no idea. Noubar Afeyan?

HOLMES: You’re right. He was talking about that in the context of running Moderna and —

COWEN: Many other companies.

HOLMES: — many other companies, allowing people the scope to make bad arguments because it gets you to the good stuff. Which I think is a theme we were talking before the recording of Get Back, the Beatles documentary, of just kind of getting the sludge. Paul was big on like, “We’ve just got to play it poorly, so that we can get somewhere good.”

COWEN: That’s right, and it worked for him.

HOLMES: Noubar was also really good because we titled that “On the Permission to Leap.” That’s one of his core ideas, and it was this idea that there comes a point where societal factors, policy factors, whatever, give you that permission to take a big step, and in that case, it was his vaccine development.

Why have we not leaped more in 2021? It feels like we were heading in . . . When we had this conversation a year ago, vaccines were approved — took longer than it should, but we were looking forward to widespread vaccine availability, and surely things would get better. It still feels like we’re in a new administration. It’s a new policy regime. It still feels like we’re not able to make the leaps. The permission to leap is not there. Why do you think that is?

COWEN: I think a lot of older institutions are broken, maybe permanently so. They’re just crippled or not able to do anything other than routine, but I suppose I see the variance in our ability to leap as having gone up. The leapers leap more quickly and leap higher. In the biomedical sciences, we’re seeing many different innovations against malaria, against dengue, against sickle cell anemia, CRISPR. There’s plenty of leaping, but on average, I don’t know, I think this “average is over” idea — we’re seeing it in innovation as well.

HOLMES: Well, I think the innovators are doing it well, but you would think that we would recognize some things are like, “Wow, we’ve been maybe keeping things a little too tied down.” We’re a little too risk-averse in terms of a societal or policy response. I’m still confused that we’ve seen this miraculous development of the vaccines, and still there’s this hesitancy. I would suspect that these new vaccines, like a malaria vaccine, will come more quickly. But still, it will take far too long.

COWEN: I think there’s some change in the news cycle, where people just don’t care about so many things. They may care for a short while, and then it passes, and the new thing is here. Attention switching is much different than it used to be. If it’s something where you need a lot of people behind you to get something done, like to get 90 percent vaccinated, that seems much harder than ever before.

But if the mass of people — you simply need them to tolerate what you’re doing, and if the law is not hindering you, that may, in some ways, be easier than it used to be because the attention switching is so rapid, it’s harder for them to prove an obstacle.

Now we have a bunch of problems — vaccinating people, testing, climate change — where you need active participation from a lot of people, and there, we’re having problems. The other class of innovations — I think we’re kicking butt, so it’s a weird world. Higher variance, I think, is the key.

HOLMES: All right, you’re three for three on production function. Can we keep the trend? Fourth one: “People who stayed with me in my house have told me that I have a habit of which I was completely unaware — that I sit upstairs, where I’m sitting now, in my study, and I work on my computer. Then, about every half an hour, there’s an enormous bang, and I stamp around the room swearing. The people in the house are terribly worried that something has gone awfully wrong. Then I get back to work, and everything resumes as usual for the next half an hour, and then it all happens again. I was completely unaware that I did that until several people have told me that I do, but it seems to work.”

COWEN: That sounds like Niall Ferguson because he has a summer house in Wales. In Wales, things go bad.

HOLMES: [laughs] I agree that it sounds like Niall Ferguson, but you’re wrong, and you broke your streak.

COWEN: Oh, who is it?

HOLMES: This is Patricia Fara.

COWEN: Ah, okay.

HOLMES: Yes, surprising answer, I think, because she —

COWEN: But same country.

HOLMES: Yes, same energy. This is my favorite from the year, I think, because actually, it describes an element of my own production function, that I talk to myself, and I often get very loud and obnoxious. Sometimes I scare other people that are around me and have no idea I’m doing it. Me and Fara got that in common.

Let’s do two more, and then we’ll call it quits. “My favorite Onion article was titled ‘NSF Studies Show Science is Hard.’ What is people’s response to that, the fact that science is hard? A lot of people will go and say, ‘Well, if I’m going to expend a lot of energy, I better do something that somebody else thinks is important.’ They look to the sides, and they think that doing something somebody else thinks is important is their mission. I think about the [research subject] and I think, ‘What is the coolest thing that I could do with my time now, or this day, this next day ahead of me that would solve something?’”

COWEN: I have no idea on that one. Maybe I’ll guess Daniel Carpenter, but that’s a stab in the dark.

HOLMES: His research subject that I removed because of the context clue is birds.

COWEN: Then we know it’s Richard Prum.

HOLMES: Richard Prum. His basic point was he loves birds. He loves birds, and that guides everything he does. He doesn’t particularly care about grand research agendas or revealing the answer to big questions. He just wants to discover something cool about birds. What do you think? Is that a general approach that should be followed? Or is that maybe unique to ornithology?

COWEN: Richard’s a great person to study, I think, to learn how to be successful, and that is to care more than the others. You have to do more than that, but it’s a great starting point.

HOLMES: All right, last one. “The most important thing you can do in that remaining part of your life must be intellectual succession in planning. Academic life, in my view, has gone off the rails in ways that I never would have imagined in the 1980s when I was starting out. We need new institutions, and I want to spend more time on institution building and less time on book writing in whatever time is left to me, and that should strike terror in my enemies’ hearts.”

COWEN: And that is Niall Ferguson. The terror in the hearts, just the whole Scottish thing, Sir Walter Scott, the thump in the attic in the Welsh summer home. He’s cluing us in that University of Austin is ready to come. I heard him say that, and I’m thinking, “What’s he actually going to do?” I didn’t know, and now I know.

HOLMES: You’re an adviser, or what’s your capacity on University of Austin?

COWEN: I’m on the advisory board. I don’t govern. I don’t work on it any particular day. I was asked to be on the advisory board, keen to see what they do. I think innovation in higher ed should be encouraged, but I’m not part of the process.

HOLMES: A listener on Twitter asked, “What do you think is going to be different there, based on what you see?”

COWEN: At the University of Austin. We’re very close to T sub zero in University of Austin planning. I’m not sure how much anyone knows, but I think they will genuinely teach classic works. They will genuinely court STEM majors and give them a rigorous education. I think they will attract a fair number of students. The push I gave them in the chat I had with their president was to really be a radical university and not just not be Woke, but to change pedagogy quite a bit in innovative ways that took a lot of chances.

I genuinely have no idea how much they will or will not be doing that, but that was my advice as someone on the advisory board. If it were just like a better St. John’s with more STEM majors, well, that would be great. I love St. John’s as it is. Maybe they’re underperforming relative to what they could be and could do. They ought to think big and have founder energy and overturn the world. We’ll see.

HOLMES: Speaking of founder energy, if we’re thinking about it in terms of starting a company or venture capital or whatever, I think one thing that worries me about it — maybe it’s too early in it, but I don’t see people dropping everything to join us, and they don’t have the skin in the game. So far — maybe I’m wrong — but so far, none of the big professors or whatever have revoked tenure and said, “I’m full-time University of Austin.” Is that a concern?

COWEN: I don’t know. I think the first thing I said is, we’re very close to T sub zero in the planning horizon. It’s just so, so early in the game.

I’m not sure they will succeed by getting well-known people to join. That strategy itself might be a mistake. Most well-known people are somewhat older. Nothing against that, but it could be they revolutionize the world by getting a few 23-year-old YouTubers on board, right?

HOLMES: Right. Maybe they should read your forthcoming book on how to spot talent and use that to recruit new professors, or nonprofessors, as the case may be.

COWEN: The Beatles didn’t try to hire Frank Sinatra, did they? No, of course not. Nothing against Frank, but look.

HOLMES: They did joke about getting Eric Clapton, at one point, to replace George Harrison.

COWEN: They didn’t do it. He played guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but I don’t even like his solo that much. Billy Preston was their really good move. He was fantastic on all those songs, both on the albums and in the documentary. A much better temporary acquisition than Eric Clapton was, I think.

HOLMES: I referenced your book. Last year, I think you said a draft was finished, but that was where it stood. Any updates on the book with Daniel Gross on talent?

COWEN: The book is called Talent. It’s being published by St. Martin’s on May 22. About a week ago, we did all the final, final proofreading on the galleys, the jacket copy, and all that. It is done, delivered, ready to be published. It will be out in, what, five months, May.

HOLMES: All right.

COWEN: I’m very excited, and Daniel has been absolutely wonderful to work with.

HOLMES: Another listener on Twitter asked if we could revisit some of your picks, culture picks from 2011. I did that two years ago since it was the end of the decade. We went back to 2009 in that case and looked at your pop culture picks from 2009. We didn’t do it last year, but since he asked, I went back and looked at your picks from 2011.

COWEN: Let’s do it.

HOLMES: Movies, books, and music. Do you remember anything from your picks then?

COWEN: No, I have no idea what was in what year. Some things are in iconic years, like Sergeant Pepper was 1967, but whether it was 2012 or 2011 — no idea, especially for books.

HOLMES: We’ll do movies first. The big one is that you just come out of the gate saying, “I didn’t like anything from Hollywood or even indies in 2011.” Almost all your pics are foreign.

COWEN: The decline of Hollywood had already started. There are so many sequels, a trend that has continued, so many tentpole franchises. Mostly, they’re boring.

HOLMES: How’s that compared to this year, though? I think a lot of your picks this year are fairly mainstream. There’s Dune, Get Back. What else have you got? Minari. They’re pretty standard fare, things you would see on pretty much any critic’s list.

COWEN: I don’t think Minari is standard Hollywood fare. Maybe it’s standard indie fare.

HOLMES: But it was Oscar-winning.

COWEN: Get Back is eight hours. It’s a New Zealand director. It’s reassembled from footage of another movie. It’s a documentary of a documentary. It’s a fundamentally strange thing.

Dune took forever to make. It’s a French-Canadian director. The movie’s like a running commentary on Islam. It’s tentpole in the sense that the novel is what, from 1965? But it’s a weird pick, and it’s not on a lot of best-of lists this year, which I find baffling. It’s highly imperfect, but to not put that movie on your list at all — just for the soundtrack, the visuals — seems to me criminal.

HOLMES: Dune was one of the three I saw this year, and I was glad I did it.

Okay, let’s go through your 2011 list really quickly.

COWEN: Sure.

HOLMES: All right, number one — in no particular order, I think — but number one was Incendies. Do you remember what that’s about?

COWEN: That is by the same director of Dune.

HOLMES: Oh, is that Denis Villeneuve?

COWEN: Yes, that’s his breakthrough movie. It’s incredible.

HOLMES: I didn’t know that. I’d never heard of it. French Canadian movie, mostly set in Lebanon.

COWEN: Highly recommended, whether or not you like Dune. That was a good pick. It’s held up very well. The director has proven his merits repeatedly, and the market agrees.

HOLMES: I’m a fan of Denis Villeneuve. Obviously, Arrival was great. I can’t think of the Mexican drug movie off the top of my head.

COWEN: Is it Sicario?

HOLMES: Sicario — awesome.

COWEN: It was interesting, yes.

HOLMES: He is one of the only directors today where, when he now makes something, I know I will go and see it.

COWEN: Well, you must see Incendies. So far, I’m on a roll. What’s next?

HOLMES: All right, number two: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

COWEN: Possibly the best movie of the last 20 years. I’m impressed by myself. It’s a Thai movie. It’s very hard to explain. I’ve seen it three times since. A lot of other people have it as either their favorite movie ever or in a top-10 status, but a large screen is a benefit. If you’re seeing the movie, pay very close attention to its sounds and to the sonic world it creates, not just the images.

HOLMES: All right, number three: Of Gods and Men. You remember that one?

COWEN: I don’t know, the first two picks were better.

HOLMES: It’s loosely based on the lives of some monks in Algeria, French Christian monks.

COWEN: Oh, that. I thought it was a different movie. That was pretty good. Yes, that was good.

HOLMES: Number four: Even the Rain, a Spanish movie filmed in Bolivia. You remember that one?

COWEN: Yes, but not well. There are a lot of culturally specific movies that draw you in when you watch. Maybe they’re not that universal. They’re very good movies, but they don’t stick with you. That’s fine.

HOLMES: Number five: Melancholia.

COWEN: Beautiful visuals, maybe too overblown, but an interesting film.

HOLMES: Then a couple other you gave shout-outs to — you said, “Drive with Ryan Gosling had excellent moments and scenes. Moneyball was a good, but not great, movie. It was a great movie about business.”

COWEN: It was a very good Hollywood movie, but you’ve already read the book, so you know how it’s going to turn out. It’s all very stereotypical, super well executed. Pretty good dialogue in the old-school sense of the term, but again, it didn’t stick with me. But Moneyball as a concept, I just wrote a book on talent, my goodness. There should be a movie version of that, and that was as good of a movie version as we might have expected, so it’s still a thumbs up.

HOLMES: All right, moving to best books. You had a number of lists of best books, but you had one post where you said, here’s essentially your top three across the genres. Number one, Steven Pinker, Better Angels of Our Nature.

COWEN: That book is still talked about. I would say a very good pick. Maybe I’m more skeptical about the Pinker worldview than I was back then, but an excellent book.

HOLMES: Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs — his bio.

COWEN: I’ve since heard from people who knew Jobs, and/or knew people who knew Jobs, that the portrait was not entirely accurate. I can’t assess that myself. It’s still a wonderfully written book about a very important figure, but maybe he’s too negative on Jobs. Maybe Jobs just wasn’t a foot-stomping tyrant who yelled at everyone. He got a lot done. I have an iPhone still in my pocket. I would say maybe Jobs has aged better than the book, but it’s still a great book to read. Just take it with a grain of salt.

HOLMES: What do you think of Isaacson, generally, as a biographer? I know a lot of people like to think his Leonardo da Vinci biography —

COWEN: I think, if you’re looking to read one book on Leonardo, it’s a very good first or only book to read. But if you’ve read, say, more than 10 books on Leonardo, while it’s fine, it doesn’t add that much. I’m happy to recommend it, but it wasn’t, for me, a great experience. But it’s a well-done book.

HOLMES: Who’s your pick for best biographer? Living, let’s say. Is it Ruth Scurr?

COWEN: Oh, living. I’m, right now, reading the Andrew Roberts biography of King George III, the last king of America. Roberts has this wonderful book on Napoleon and a book on Churchill I haven’t read yet, but people think is excellent. I don’t know if he’s top, but he’s top in my mind right now. He’s done great work, and the King George book is excellent.

HOLMES: The last one in your best books list: Haruki Murakami, 1Q84.

COWEN: I would like to read it again, which is a positive sign. I read some of what I read then — maybe all of it — in German because it came out first in German. For me, reading a book in German and in English — that’s different. But high marks to it and to him, and he should have won a Nobel Prize by now, and I say a good pick.

HOLMES: I’ll run quickly through best music since you had, it looks like, 11 picks for best music. I’ll just run through this really quick.

COWEN: [laughs] Not 12. 11.

HOLMES: In no particular order, Abigail Washburn, City of Refuge.

COWEN: She, I think, is good friends with Sarah Parcak, Abigail Washburn, I learned. That’s interesting. She hasn’t done as much lately. I think she’s been raising children. She’s wife of Béla Fleck. He just came out with a new CD. Her work has held up very well, especially the integration of Chinese music with bluegrass and old-timey and folk sources. Good pick.

HOLMES: Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes.

COWEN: She’s a Swedish artist. I haven’t followed her lately. She never struck me as a long-trajectory artist, but that’s still good work. She had her own sound. It was emotionally resonant. I’m still happy with that pick.

HOLMES: Okay. James Blake, a couple of albums from him.

COWEN: I didn’t like his very latest, but his first few are wonderful and create their own sound worlds and had a big impact. Good pick.

HOLMES: Let me run through the rest of these, and you can react to all of them as a mass. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy.

COWEN: Okay, she has become a bigger deal. Good pick. Was that 2011?

HOLMES: Yes, it’s very hipster of you to have some of these on here. St. Vincent — quite a tastemaker you are. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up.

COWEN: That hasn’t stuck with me. I’ll say, not a great pick.

HOLMES: Miles Davis, Live in Europe 1967.

COWEN: Sure, but that’s a no-brainer. It was just released that year.

HOLMES: This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45RPM 1957–1982.

COWEN: Well, that’s a good pick, but every release in that genre is excellent. It didn’t require any intelligence on my part.

HOLMES: Wilco, The Whole Love.

COWEN: I think I only listen still to two or three Wilco albums, the famous ones, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They’ve become quite underrated, but they’ve boiled down to a two- or three-hour set, rather than their lesser albums. Pretty good pick, but I don’t listen to that CD anymore.

HOLMES: The Smile Sessions, the Beach Boys.

COWEN: I listen to it all the time, including the cuts on YouTube of Brian Wilson doing that in concert. Incredible pick. Some of the greatest music ever created in the 20th century.

HOLMES: If there is another documentary in the style of Get Back for any other musical group, who should it be?

COWEN: There is a new Brian Wilson documentary, either out or about to come out, which I haven’t seen yet. Probably, it’s incredible. How can it not be? He still deserves much more attention. He was the person where Paul McCartney thought, “This is my rival.” That says it all. Paul Simon was the other one.

HOLMES: Indeed by Oren Ambarchi and Jim O’Rourke, as an LP.

COWEN: Indeed. I can’t even place it. What did I say?

HOLMES: You said, “A real winner. Beautiful sound.”

COWEN: Well, there you go. It must be true then.

[laughter]

HOLMES: Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM.

COWEN: Again, that’s like the old blues cuts. Old African popular music — any halfway reasonable collection of it’s going to be excellent. Takes no brains or insight, but yes, good pick.

HOLMES: Then later in the post, you say, “The artists I listened to the most this year was probably Lonnie Mack, followed by John Fahey. The two best concerts I saw were Satyagraha at the Met.”

COWEN: Sure. I saw that with Yana. We had second-row seats, right behind Philip Glass.

HOLMES: Oh, nice.

HOLMES: Saw the back of his head.

HOLMES: If we had been producing CWT, you could have leaned over and said, “Come on.” He’s on our list and has been since the beginning.

COWEN: More people should listen to Lonnie Mack, The Wham of That Memphis Man. One of the very best LPs of its age. Early guitar hero, incredible blues guitarist, has a lot of energy, has founder energy, has a sense of impending death and doom. It doesn’t seem that well known, however. Do you know it?

HOLMES: No.

COWEN: Try it.

HOLMES: Okay. It seems like you’re standing behind your picks. You feel like they’ve aged well.

COWEN: I’m not sure it’s for me to say. [laughs]

HOLMES: I think you can only say how well you feel like your picks have stood up. It sounds like you would make them again, in other words.

COWEN: I would make them again. I’m sure I missed stuff, but they sound somewhat ahead of their time.

HOLMES: Those are the 2011 picks. Now we’re going to move on to a grab bag of Twitter questions. First one: Jeff McCarty on Twitter asks, “Underrated or overrated, the Conversations with Tyler podcast?” I looked, and we have a 4.8-star rating out of 5, for what it’s worth. Are we overrated or underrated? Or correctly rated?

COWEN: I think a lot of the episodes with women guests are quite underrated. That would be the point I would make. Maybe CEOs are, overall, the somewhat overrated category.

HOLMES: At any given point, as we veer in composition of guests, that’s how you’ll know. [laughs]

COWEN: That’s the best predictor of whether it’s over- or underrated. Correct.

HOLMES: The next question, Dwarkesh Patel: “Tyler said a while back that one goal of his podcast was to teach people to ask better questions. Is that still a major goal, and how well does he think the podcast has been able to teach that?”

COWEN: Apparently, it taught him. That’s a good question. N=1, but yes.

HOLMES: Well done, Dwarkesh. Question three from @stillfewer: “Did Deutsch convince you that Popper’s philosophy is more profound than you had thought? Do you think he solved the problem of induction, for example?”

COWEN: No, Deutsch convinced me that there’s often a lot of hot air behind Popper. He didn’t argue very well on Popper’s behalf. Deutsch is way smarter than I am, but he seemed to me, in some fundamental ways, a dogmatist and not really able to defend Popper very well — that he’s made up his mind. And you get a particular kind of emphatic statement, but I thought, at the philosophical level, his defenses were weak.

HOLMES: Someone made the comment — and I wonder if you agree with it — that maybe that’s just a casualty of the fact that it’s only an hour interview, and he simply doesn’t have the time, and in general, your style is to make your point and move on. Does he have the time to maybe go into the depths to give you the deep defense? Or does he have to, on some level, just assert?

COWEN: I think there are ways, even in a sentence or two, you could show higher depth or defensibility. There’s this odd feature of Popperianism — it’s a bit like Misesianism. It somehow attracts a lot of dogmatists. I don’t know why. You would think a philosophy that emphasizes fallibility and refutation wouldn’t do that, but it does.

HOLMES: Next question from @gasca. Asked a number of ones. I think the one I’ll pick is, “We talked about university curriculum, but if you could do whatever you wanted, how would you change elementary, middle school, high school curricula?”

COWEN: I don’t think I know enough to say, but intuitively, it strikes me as somewhat absurd that we group together children all of the same age. There’s an obvious staggering problem. But ideally you would want younger children always to be interacting with older children, and older children to take on a partial role of teacher and mentor, older peer.

The idea that there’s the second grade, the third grade, the fourth grade — in my gut, I feel that has to be wrong, and you’re inducing the kids to bring out the worst in each other. I don’t know how to fix that, but that’s where my attention would point — on that assumption that you group by age seems barbaric.

HOLMES: Somewhat related to that, you’re thinking about how do you spot talent. You also think a lot about mentorship, and you’ve set up programs that are, to some extent, about mentorship and trying to identify talent. Have you thought much about the role of parenting in bringing out the potential in a child, either for good or for bad?

COWEN: Well, I’ve been a parent. Still am, but —

HOLMES: And now a grandparent.

COWEN: Yana is now grown. I think what you are and how you are — that is more important than anything you tell them, and how you treat your spouse or partner is more important than how you treat them. They will learn by example.

Primary contributions tend to be genetic, but at the margin, family culture really matters. And you see this — I think it’s misleadingly called tiger-mom parenting, but whatever you want to call it, it has worked in some way. Now, it’s not my style, but it proves parenting style can work. You have to figure out what’s a version of that that can work for me.

HOLMES: I would agree with you mostly, as stated, but I’m, in particular, thinking, too, about very young children because I have two very young children. And I think it is about how you comport yourself and how you interact with your spouse, but also how you treat them and model interactions with them, recognizing that they’re not just little adults. And for me, that’s one of the hardest things to learn to do, is to recognize that a four-year-old simply doesn’t have the emotional development, say, to have a reasoned discussion on something.

COWEN: They want a structure from you.

HOLMES: They do.

COWEN: Which, maybe it’s not your intuition to feel totally comfortable providing that because you’re used to being reasonable with other people.

HOLMES: There are models of education, like the progressive model of education of John Dewey, that, in part, are premised on this notion that as we become adults, we forget what it was like to actually be a child. That is one of the core challenges of being a parent, is to remember what it was like for you when you were really young.

Do you think, in general, that’s an underrated thing that we have this loss of memory? How well do you remember how you were at three or four? Very well. [laughs]

COWEN: It’s hard for me to know how well. I have the feeling I’ve changed less over the years than most people, that I was a bit older, young, and now being older, I’m still somewhat young. I suspect the main market failure you see with parents is their mode of interaction is driven by narcissism or their own problems within the family unit rather than concern for the kid, rather than, well, they can’t remember what they were like. I would think that’s pretty low on the list of what is going wrong.

HOLMES: Do you think it’s generally true in the sense that we, maybe conveniently, are just willing to tolerate a certain kind of — mistreatment is the wrong word — but we will humiliate our kids in ways that we would never humiliate another adult by, for instance, having a conversation about them in their presence, where you talk about some bad behavior or something.

COWEN: I try not to do that. Can I say for sure I’ve never done it?

HOLMES: John Dewey would be proud.

COWEN: Yes, John Dewey would be proud. I don’t find that so difficult to avoid. I think, in all those ways, you should be quite respectful of your kids.

HOLMES: Does that suggest that, for instance, should we actually be treating kids more seriously? For instance, thinking about extending voter rights at a younger age and things like that? Or is that just a different question to you?

COWEN: I’m not sure extending voter rights to kids would matter much. There’s Coasian bargaining within the family. I would say I’m not opposed, but I’m not for it.

Another intuition I have is, children feel less in control than you, as a parent, realize. In ways that don’t even matter, you want to give them chances to feel in control, like in a conversation or an interaction.

Just hang back a bit and let them own things and own the structure of your interaction with them, more than is typically the case. I don’t have any real evidence that that has positive benefit, but I know it’s how I act. It feels to me like, at the very least, it’s good for me. I don’t see that it’s likely to be harming them, so there you go.

HOLMES: All right, moving on. Dallas Floer, fellow producer of Conversations with Tyler, asks, Limp Bizkit’s new album — overrated or underrated?

COWEN: Since I haven’t heard it, it must be underrated by me. I don’t have any other opinion than that. Hi, Dallas, you’re sitting right here.

[laughter]

HOLMES: You should check it out, I think, and let us know. Report back. All right. User @BAmark asks: “What were the most important things you learned this year? Have you changed your mind? Why?”

COWEN: I don’t know if I would call them things I’ve learned. I think I have a new favorite saying that I didn’t have at the beginning of the year. It’s “Context is that which is scarce.”

HOLMES: Please don’t elaborate further.

[laughter]

COWEN: If I go to events with people, which I do pretty often, even in COVID times, it used to be, I would go to hear new and daring ideas that I hadn’t heard before. That’s great, but I think, especially with Twitter, it’s very hard to hear new and daring ideas you haven’t heard before. So why are you listening to other people? The way they put things, the way they argue, the way they paint the bigger picture — you’re getting a lot more context for ideas you’re somewhat already familiar with, and that context is important.

Or by studying other cultures, you’re getting context for understanding people or situations or places. That, at the margin, is what I’m trying to get more of, more context rather than new ideas. Realizing that’s more important than I thought, at least for me right now, has been, maybe, my biggest mental change. But almost by definition, it’s not a new idea. It’s like more context for context.

HOLMES: I wonder if, sometimes, the reason why we don’t attract more listeners to the show is because there is a certain orientation that has to happen to appreciate Conversations with Tyler. If you get what you’re doing, it’s very easy, but I know from talking to people, if you just pull up a random episode and listen to it, I think a lot of people do not have that context to understand.

COWEN: Sure. It’s deeply bizarre. I think that’s another good example. Context is that which is scarce. There are ways you can write where your readers have that context, or ways you can podcast where they do, and then ways where they don’t.

One thing with Twitter — Twitter itself pulls quotations out of context, but they encourage people to read pieces that are removed from the context of a blog or a particular magazine or newspaper, and that’s very much a mixed blessing. Context, arguably, has become a lot more scarce with social media. That, to me, means there’s high gains from being able to fill in those pieces.

But if this is a podcast that people need context for, and I strongly suspect that it is, I think that’s what we need more of. If fewer people listen, I’m not going to say great, but I don’t want to explain everything from scratch. The first question, I think, ought to be jumping right in.

HOLMES: Right. One thing that we’re actually thinking about on marketing is how we can do that. We’re not asking you to do that, but we might try to find a way to give people that guide to get into the show. Because while I respect this “If you don’t like it, get out of here” attitude, we also think that this is a good product, and we want more people to enjoy it, so we want to give people the tools to enjoy it.

COWEN: If you do a 10-point guide to understanding Conversations with Tyler. Like, “He will never ask what the book is about. He will never give you a chance to explain what you’re about. The first question will be very pointed and specific.”

HOLMES: Yes. If anyone out there wants to take a first stab at that, I think long-time listeners will have no problem putting that together for the benefit of new listeners.

Last question for me before we close. Related to this context thing, given that you’re searching more for context, how has your information diet changed in the past year? Are you spending less time on the streams of social media or trying to change the composition there?

COWEN: I don’t think it’s changed all that much. I’ve spent a lot more time reading about the visual arts and studying images and looking at the visual arts. That would be the biggest change. That’s maybe somewhat of a reversion to how I had been earlier rather than a completely new thing, but that’s what I would pick as what’s been different.

HOLMES: You wrote, one of your best books for this year was this Sub-Saharan Africa: Architecture. Why include that? What was it about it that spoke to you?

COWEN: Obviously, Africa’s a very important continent. It’s a very hard continent to learn a lot about. Hard to get there. Not always an easy experience — so many countries — even apart from COVID issues. Here are these seven books — which I’m not done reading yet, by the way, but I will finish the whole series — that just teach you the whole history of Africans building things.

That to me, in many ways, is a more fundamental history than just reading another political history of Africa, where they all go through, more or less, the same events: apartheid fell, and the Biafran War in Nigeria, and this and that. That’s all very important, but at the end of the day, if you’re interested in Africa at all, that is not what is scarce. There’s something more nitty-gritty, more contextual on the ground, and these books make a very serious attempt to give you that.

They have excellent photographs, and they cover the entire African continent, and also give you a sense of diversity and lived experience. But also, institutionally — how did these things actually happen? Where did the influences come from? What was the role of colonialism? Why are Finnish architects prominent in some parts of Africa and not others? And so on. I thought it’s a pretty remarkable series and one of my topics for the book of the year.

HOLMES: Architecture and visual art as an entry point into learning about new fields or areas.

COWEN: Correct.

HOLMES: All right, before we go, I want to extend thanks to everyone who works on the Conversations with Tyler team. It’s not just me and Dallas and Morgan [Hamilton] and some of the other names you might hear on the podcast from time to time. It’s Kate Brown, Kate De Lanoy, Mike Hopper, Sloane Shearman, Caroline Bair, Karen Plante, Christina Behe, Haley Larsen, Anna McVae, Ashley Schiller. All of these people have contributed significant time to the show in the past year. So, on behalf of Tyler and myself, thank you to the CWT team. We appreciate your efforts, and we look forward to another year of conversations.

COWEN: I’m very lucky to work with all of you. Thank you, all who work on CWT, very much. For any listeners or readers out there who support us, your support is very greatly appreciated.