Works in Progress

25 Jul. 2022

Happy summer from the Works in Progress team. We hope you are staying cool. In our new issue out today, we have articles on how to fix peer review, rescue our roads from cars, and use bacteriophages to fight antibiotic resistance – plus a gripping account of the first around the world solo boat race by Stewart Brand.

For the first time, we’re featuring a documentary on Works in ProgressThe Street Network is an original film about how Cuban gamers in Havana turned their rudimentary gaming network into a DIY internet that served tens of thousands of people on the island. It’s a story about how people create the tools they need to flourish from the ground up. The documentary was made by our talented friends at Stripe Press, and we’re delighted to be releasing it.

In our lead article – We don’t have a hundred biases, we have the wrong model – Jason Collins argues that while behavioral economics has identified biases, it’s failed to unite them into a coherent model of human behavior. We need, he says, a new model that takes perspectives like computational science and evolution seriously, to truly understand and predict the decisions people make.

Our cover art comes from Finn Cleverly, an illustrator based in London. You can find more of his work here.

Next, the legendary Stewart Brand tells the story of the world’s first solo round the world yacht race in The maintenance race. The race drove one contestant to suicide and nearly killed others, and Brand suggests that each sailor’s philosophy of maintenance determined their approach and performance in the race – underlining the broader importance of maintenance to our lives.

When America’s economy overtook Britain’s at the end of the 19th Century, it remade the world in ways that still shape our lives today. But how did it happen? Davis Kedrosky digs into the history and evidence in The decline and fall of the British economy, and considers whether the United States may be now facing a similar eclipse by China.

We are losing the war against antibiotic resistant bacteria, and if things don’t change we could go back to a world where routine surgeries and infections regularly turn lethal. But there may be a weapon in our arsenal that we’ve almost forgotten. Léa Zinsli, in Age of the bacteriophage, brings our attention to phages: viruses that infect bacteria. Zinsli writes on the strengths and limits of phage therapy, and what we can do to advance the technology further.

Most roads weren’t built for cars, even if cars dominate them today. Carlton Reid writes on how roads emerged – for people on foot or horseback as long ago as the Neolithic. The supremacy of the car today creates huge costs and causes cities to be more sprawling and unpleasant than they need to be. Reclaiming the roads is possible, Reid says, and could remake cities to be more liveable for everyone.

From our very own editor Saloni Dattani comes a deep-dive into peer review in science. How did it originate, and why does it take up so much of researchers’ time today? And if it isn’t working, how do we fix it? In her piece Real peer review has never been tried, she outlines the ambitious steps we need to speed up how we do science in public.

Coming soon to our Substack

We’re soon going to be trialing a new format for our subscribers: Substack diaries. These are pieces by our authors that give an insight into the work they’re doing and big problems they’re grappling with – on how to do science in reverse, how cognitive aging in dogs can help us understand Alzheimer’s disease, and why our intuitions so often steer us wrong when it comes to protecting the environment.

Keep a lookout, because you’ll get the first in your inbox in the coming weeks.

What we’ve been up to

Saloni started a weekly newsletter called Scientific Discovery, on great new scientific research you may have missed. You can subscribe here. She wrote for Our World in Data about how guinea worm disease has nearly been eradicated worldwide. And last week, she received an award from the Royal Statistical Society for her article debunking myths about vaccination during pregnancy.

Nick blogged about how AI might change how we do progress studies: If transformative AI is closer than we think, it changes the value of promoting pro-growth policy reforms, relative to other pursuits. And his Blog Prize project continues to inspire a lively discussion on everything from agency to X-risk. They’re now doing prizes for the best posts on a new topic every month. You can read monthly digests of the best posts here.

Ben recently became a father, and more importantly, launched a Substack called Baldwin – you can subscribe here. In his most popular post so far, he argues that people are missing out by not living closer to their friends – and offers solutions to the challenges in making it happen.

Sam has been digging into the relationship between housing costs and fertility rates, but hasn’t written anything final just yet. He also helped put on the London premier of We Are As Godsa documentary about the life of Stewart Brand, in London in June. Look forward to a wide release of the film this fall.

Even more

Here’s more we’ve enjoyed from around the web:

That’s all from us this time. If you enjoyed this issue, share it with your friends, and subscribe if you haven’t already!

– Saloni, Ben, Sam and Nick

The post Issue 08: Build your own internet appeared first on Works in Progress.

22 Apr. 2022
Calum Heath illustrates the cover for this issue. He is a freelance illustrator based in Oxford, UK. You can follow him on Instagram here.

Hello from the Works in Progress team! In case you missed it, we’ve teamed up with Stripe. But more importantly, the seventh issue of Works in Progress is out! Read it here.

It features great new articles about polyester, motorways, dueling, and more. And stick around until the end of this email to hear about some of our other work this quarter, including Sam’s new BBC documentary and Nick’s blog prize, plus our other favorite links from around the web.

Sam, Ben and Saloni of the Works in Progress team live in London. Our lead piece tells the story of a plan to bulldoze through the heart of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods with a series of ring roads. Michael Dnes tells the story in London’s lost ringways. Camden Market, Brixton and Chelsea would all have been buried by new roads. London would be unrecognizable. Most readers will be glad the plan was scrapped, but the story is bittersweet: as unwise as the scheme now seems today, was there something to admire in such ambitious infrastructure plans?

Prizes might encourage new inventions in areas like climate change and antibiotics. But Anton Howes, of the Age of Invention newsletter, argues that we misunderstand and overhype prizes because of myths surrounding their history in Why innovation prizes fail. Instead, he argues, new innovation prizes should focus on incremental improvements, not giant breakthroughs.

Some of our favorite pieces of clothing are made of polyester: Nick’s Patagonia fleeces, Sam’s Uniqlo thermal wear, Saloni’s gym clothes. But just a few decades ago the fabric had become universally hated after once defining the vibrant psychedelic prints and disco wear of the 1960s and 70s. Why has this fabric had such a strange journey?

Virginia Postrel, author of The Fabric of Civilization, tells the story of How polyester bounced back. Advances in materials science allowed businesses to innovate with the fabric and give it new qualities to keep us cool in the heat and warm in the cold. It’s now a staple of most people’s wardrobes—often without them even realizing that it’s polyester that they’re wearing.

Krystell Bringas illustrates Postrel’s piece. She is an illustrator based in London and you can find more of her work here.

Are good ideas getting harder to find? The question underlies virtually every debate about stagnation, science, and societal progress itself. But our editor Ben Southwood argues that this elegant theory might be wrong, in Scientific slowdown is not inevitable. Instead, we might be getting worse at finding them. Ben has previously measured the slowdown in scientific progress with economist Tyler Cowen, and argued that we should bring back industrial R&D labs to speed it up again.

Dueling is a brutal institution, but William Buckner, author of the anthropology blog Traditions of conflict, explains that they have a social function in Why we duel. He describes how these encounters have permeated through hunter-gatherer societies and served as a way of managing violence, along with subtle rituals that mitigate the injuries involved.

Gas heating is a big problem for climate change. The total leakage from the gas network in the United States is so extensive that natural gas might damage the climate more than coal per energy unit delivered to people’s homes. But electric heating is an expensive alternative, and even heat pumps have problems. Audrey Schulman proposes a solution in her article Local warming: geothermal heat pumps and municipal heat networks that pipe hot water into people’s homes. Schulman also recently published a novel The Dolphin House, which is one of WIRED’s ‘15 Books You Need to Read This Summer’.

What we’ve been up to

Since our last issue, Sam hosted a documentary for BBC Radio 4, The End of Invention, on whether scientific progress is slowing and, if so, what we can do to fix it.

Nick launched the Effective Ideas blog prize, which is awarding up to five $100,000 prizes for the best blogs related to doing good over the long term. The site also includes a detailed guide on how to start a blog and start writing on the internet. Some of the bloggers participating include John Myers at Ziggurat and Joe Carlsmith at Hands and Cities.

Saloni joined Stripe Press as a contributing editor. Along with Press and Works in Progress (and finishing her PhD), she’s writing and researching for Our World in Data. Recently she has published a definitive guide to why randomized controlled trials matter and a post on how depression is being diagnosed earlier than in the past, thanks to improved guidelines and more openness to mental health disorders.

Ben published Create Mews with the think tank Create Streets. It proposes to allow urban residents to vote to turn some of the urban wasteland around their properties into new housing and other developments, creating new streets and blocks on under-used land. The plan complements earlier proposals Ben has worked on, including street votes and mansard votes.

Even more

Here’s more we’ve enjoyed from around the web:

  • Stuart Ritchie (no relation to Hannah) has started a new Substack, Science Fictions. His first post is on psychedelics and mental illness and his second is a rebuttal of a New York Review of Books review of Paige Harden’s new book The Genetic Lottery.
  • Dwarkesh Patel writes on the miracle of the mystery year: Why, even in the lives of highly productive people, certain years seem to be significantly more productive than others.
  • Aria Babu writes a defense of “Girlbosses”, on how the press seems to cover female company founders with unusual scorn.
  • Anonmugwump writes about the empirical evidence around “soft power” in international relations.
  • Skluug writes on how AI risk really is like The Terminator. Gavin Leech writes another compelling introduction to AI risk.
  • Some good news: This new paper from Nobel laureate Michael Kremer and colleagues finds that simply treating water with chlorination reduces child mortality by a massive 30%. It may be the most cost-effective health intervention ever.

That’s all from us this time. Have a great week!

– Nick, Saloni, Sam and Ben

The post Issue 07: The ideas start coming and they don’t stop coming appeared first on Works in Progress.

17 Feb. 2022

We are pleased to announce that Works in Progress has a new home at Stripe, where we’ll be teaming up with Stripe Press to further ideas for economic, scientific and technological advancement.

In the short-term, nothing will change: we’re going to continue publishing great authors with interesting ideas about science, economics, and technology – except we’ll be doing more of it. Nick, Ben, and Sam will be dedicated to Works in Progress full-time at Stripe, with Saloni working part-time as an editor for Works in Progress and Stripe Press as she finishes her PhD.

Over the long term, we hope to grow Works in Progress into one of the liveliest corners of the internet for people interested in new and underrated ideas for solving difficult problems.

We’re really excited about this. We have editorial independence from Stripe, and in general, we’re going to avoid subjects that Stripe might have a direct interest in. (So sadly not too many essays on the state of global payments infrastructure—but you can always check out Bits About Money for those.) We plan to focus on doing more of what we’ve been doing so far: clear, practical, and insightful essays that help us to understand the problems that matter to us, from authors we think are great. As ever, if you have any questions you can reach us on Twitter or email us at

The post Works in Progress has joined Stripe appeared first on Works in Progress.