Six memorable episodes of Conversations with Tyler

I love the podcast Conversations with Tyler. In it, Tyler Cowen hosts a wide range of guests, from music critics to archaeologists to investors – you never quite know what you’re going to get.

When you start listening to each episode, there is very little exposition. You are immediately launched into a discussion of whether Kanye West is decadent, why the Estonian language is so complicated, or why the drug of choice seems to vary so much across American states. This risks being disconcerting, but for the inquiring generalist, who either knows a little, or wants to know more about everything, it’s great.

The podcast is very information-dense compared to other podcasts, and the interviewees provide many interesting tidbits (although billed as a ‘conversation’, it is perhaps the least conversational of podcasts with more than one person; you mainly hear from the guest).

Below are some of the CWT episodes that I think about most. I’m not sure that they’re the best ones, or my all time favourites, but they’re the ones that often come to mind in my day-to-day life.

Camille Paglia: The point from this interview that sticks out is Tyler’s cheeky suggestion that Paglia is culturally conservative because she is so disillusioned with many aspects of modern aesthetics. Paglia vehemently rejects the charge. I often recall this discussion when I see a mixture of conservatism and liberalism in other people – the two ways of thinking are not mutually exclusive.

Fuchsia Dunlop: There are two CWT episodes with Dunlop, a Chinese cooking expert, and each one is fantastic. I had no idea just how diverse Chinese food was, nor how many different parts of animals they find uses for. Did you know that the Sichuanese peppercorn creates a numbing, spicy sensation in your mouth? I promise it’s good…

Andy Weir: The author of The Martian and Artemis. It’s the discussion of the economics of Weir’s moon colony in Artemis that I regularly ponder. If you want space travel to make sense in your fictional world, you need a rationale for the whole venture, which Weir provides: space tourism. But he has also spun out an economic system for his moon colony – no mean feat!

Peter Thiel: Thiel is a noted technologist and investor. The episode includes a discussion about the complexities of the Old and New Testaments. It’s worth reading regardless of your own view of the Bible. Tyler thinks the Old Testament is more ironic and ambiguous than the New; Thiel disagrees, citing Christ, a figure who delivered carefully chosen parables to crowds rather than speak bluntly. It’s interesting to contrast this with the Gospel texts themselves, which are much more direct when taken as whole narratives.

Sam Altman: Altman used to run Y Combinator, a start-up accelerator in Silicon Valley. The episode was a great introduction to that world for me, but it’s his confidence throughout much of the interview that is really striking. He thinks that moving start-ups to his hometown, St. Louis, would be the best way to help it. And when it comes to YC interviews: ‘by the time we can sit across the table and spend 10 minutes with somebody, as far as I know, we have never made a big mistake at that stage of the process.’ Worth thinking about.

Neal Stephenson: Another sci-fi writer – perhaps the greatest living one? It’s his line about how book tours affect him that has stuck with me: “What I need to do is go home and calm down. It takes a while. After my first book tour, I think it was six months before my eyelids stopped twitching.” For Stephenson, at least, writing well requires him to be in a particular flow that’s hard to come by. Is all creative work like this?

You can find all the CWT episodes here.

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