Episodes Joe Walker

2023 Retrospective — A Listener Interviews Me

71 min read
2023 Retrospective — A Listener Interviews Me

In this special episode, the tables are turned as I'm interviewed by a listener of the show, DJ Thornton from Sydney. We reflect on the progress of the show in 2023, what I learned from this year's guests, and what's in store for 2024.

If you'd like to support the show in 2024, you can do so here: https://support.josephnoelwalker.com/b/bIY2bNbai2sLbxmdQQ


DJ THORNTON: Joe, welcome to the show. 

JOSEPH WALKER: Thanks for having me. 

THORNTON: It's a pleasure. 

WALKER: So let's begin by having you just briefly mention who you are and maybe how you found the show. 

THORNTON: Sure, happy to. So, my name is DJ Thornton. I am a PhD student in economics. I found the show in 2021. I was asked to lecture a course on economic perspectives, and I was looking for a good podcast on Keynes. And I came across your interview with Lord Robert Skidelsky. I've been a listener ever since. 

WALKER: That was a good chat, that one. 

THORNTON: Yeah, well, it converted me to becoming a listener, so it was good. 

So, look, it's an honour to be sitting in the host chair today. There's lots of questions that I have for you, but before we get into that, I actually wanted to start by going back an entire year. Since we're reflecting on the year, I thought we might go back an entire year to the end of last year. At the end of last year, your final interview was with Tyler Cowen. You talked about talent, you talked, among other things, about Emergent Ventures. And then the podcast took a three and a half month hiatus. Of course, you weren't just resting in those three and a half months. There's a lot happening. And then you kicked off the year in the middle of April with your interview with Danny Kahneman. 

So I thought maybe you could just start by telling us a little bit about the lead up to that very first interview of the year. 

WALKER: Yeah, what a great question. So a few things happened in the lead up. Firstly, I won the Emergent Ventures grant from Tyler and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Secondly, I was actually recording podcasts that weren't published until April, when the first one was published. So I did a trip to the United States in February, where I recorded the podcast with Kahneman, the podcast with Katalin Karikó, and another one which hasn't been published yet. And then I was just working my day job, which was very time-consuming. So, working at a tech startup. I figure it's always important to prioritise that obligation above anything else when you're working for someone. So the podcast took a backseat. 

THORNTON: Yeah, fair enough. We should talk about the Emergent Ventures grant, but maybe we'll get there a little bit later. So you launched on April 14 with this interview with Danny Kahneman. And in the preface to that very first episode, you said that you were going to be posting episodes every two weeks this year. 


THORNTON: You did. Sorry, I'm holding you accountable. Look, you had twelve interviews this year, if you count this one, and that's obviously impressive by any standards. But what, were you a little over optimistic? Did you have the wrong reference class, to use Kahneman's terminology? 

WALKER: Oh, wow, what a mean interview. 


WALKER: No, it's a good question. 

THORNTON: I’ll say nice things, too, I promise.

WALKER: So I think I need to just screw the frequency going forward, just not publicly commit to anything, and people will just get the episodes when they come. So that's my new commitment: no frequency. 

THORNTON: That's not much of a commitment, Joe. 

WALKER: I thought two weeks was the right cadence, but again, the day job gets in the way, and trying to do all the interviews in person means that you need to travel a lot for them as well. And so I can't produce them as readily as if I was just doing them all over Zoom or Skype: I need to plan these big trips, like Viking raids, over to America, get some interviews and come back. 

THORNTON: For sure. I mean, did the Emergent Ventures grant give you a little bit of slack in terms of your day job or not really? 

WALKER: No, not really. I mean, you apply more for the network and the street cred, not for the money. It's generous, it helps with the podcast, helps with the operational costs, but it's not like a life-changing amount of money, and it's not money that I can personally live off. 

THORNTON: Fair enough. But you did stop your day job much later in the year, is that right? So you're just focusing on the pod now? 

WALKER: Yeah. So this might be news to many listeners, but as of mid-September, I've been just doing the podcast. That will probably change at some point because ultimately I see it as part of a portfolio of different activities. I have too many interests and ambitions to just do that. But, yeah, over the last few months and over the next few months going forward, it's kind of the main focus. 

THORNTON: Cool, that's great. Well, I mean, I was going to ask you to kind of give a prediction of how many episodes you thought you might get out in 2024.

WALKER: That's contrary to my new commitment. 

THORNTON: That is contrary. I mean, you want to give us a ballpark? 

WALKER: I would imagine between ten and twenty.

THORNTON: Yeah okay. That's pretty reasonable. Alright. Well, I do want to dive into some of the episodes and themes that were kind of woven throughout the year. Before we get there, I thought I might ask you a little bit about interviewing and guest selection a little bit more generally. So, first off, you have a lot of very high profile guests on the show, obviously.

WALKER: Including myself. 

THORNTON: Including, yeah, that's right – you're up with the greats. I was wondering, first off, how you choose which guests you're going to reach out to in the first place. And then what's your actual kind of conversion rate on those cold emails? 

WALKER: Right. The conversion rate is pretty good. Ballpark, maybe like 50%. 


WALKER: I choose the guests first and foremost on a selfish criterion of just who am I interested in? Who am I reading? Who do I want to learn more from? Who do I want to have a conversation with? Who do I want to meet in person? Because that can obviously be quite fun. Secondly, there's just the constraint of like, okay, who then actually agrees to do the podcast, but with a 50% conversion rate, that's pretty good. And then I guess, thirdly, there's also some, what would you call it, programming considerations. So, thinking about the balance of topics, usually. So not wanting to go too heavy on any one thing. I think in the past, the show featured economics quite heavily, and maybe I only had one economist this year, Raghuram Rajan. 


WALKER: Oh of course, Shruti as well.

THORNTON: Well I mean Ken Henry as well. 

WALKER: Oh, yeah, and Ken. Okay, wow. So I had three economists this year. 

THORNTON: Doesn’t remember his own episodes.

WALKER: But that's probably a lower percentage than previous years. 

THORNTON: Yeah I’d say so. Interesting. I mean, it's funny because you say you choose the guests that you kind of want to meet in person. Do you worry about kind of meeting your intellectual heroes. Have you been disappointed? 

WALKER: No, not really. I mean, to be clear, that's not like the overwhelming kind of consideration: me fanboying different people and getting selfies and autographs and stuff. But, no, I've been pretty universally impressed by everyone I've met. 

THORNTON: That's nice. Well, you hit a personal best or maybe a podcast best for the show this year. You had a four and a half hour long episode. Two, four and a half hour long episodes, one with Ken Henry and then another with Stephen Wolfram. So the first thing I want to ask is, how exactly do you... I mean, I imagine you're not getting your guests to agree to block out half the day for a podcast when you ask them if they want to come on the show. So do you think that once they get in the room with you, the reason that they're staying on is because they're just sort of enjoying the depth of the conversation with you? Or, I mean, are they finding it sort of beneficial to them? Or what do you think that the reason is that you get so much time from these people? 

WALKER: I think the conversation with both Ken and Stephen went well, and so they were happy to... I mean, you actually hear that at least in the Wolfram one, he's like, “No, no, keep going, keep going. Your questions are great.”

THORNTON: Yeah and he’s like crunching a carrot or something? 

WALKER: He's eating some chocolate or something. 

THORNTON: Yeah, you can hear crunching in the background. 

WALKER: And that was recorded on a Saturday afternoon in Concord. And so I guess he didn't have any hard stop, or at least it didn't for a while. So we were recording on the right day. 

And then with Ken, I think that might have been a Wednesday, but it was at the end of the day. He actually had to, partway through the episode, he had to move a call, which I felt kind of bad about. But he was like, “No, it's fine.” I don't think it was a crucial call or anything. 

So, yeah, I guess I don't plan for it to go that long. I'll often try to calculate how many questions I need based on their average response length in previous interviews. So I'll take, I don't know, maybe their three most recent interviews or however many interviews they've done, because sometimes they haven't done that many. Look at how many questions the interviewer asked and how long their answers were, calculate some kind of average, work out how long I have with them, and then just calculate how many questions I should be aiming for. But sometimes it just doesn't work out like that. I don't know why. So with Ken and Wolfram, about an hour into the interview, I realised like, “Oh shit, we've only got like 1 hour left, and I've only got through like 20% of my questions.” 

THORNTON: So you're asking them for 2 hours then? 

WALKER: Yeah, I think it was roughly that in both those cases. And then I'll have to be like, “Hey, sorry, do you mind if we keep going a bit longer?” And I feel like that's usually the right thing to do, just because I'm pretty confident I've got some really good questions to ask them and we probably won't get this opportunity again, at least for a very long time. And because they'd enjoyed the question so far, it was something we could do in those cases. 

THORNTON: Yeah, that's funny, because the method that you describe of how many questions you ask is exactly how I worked out how many questions I was going to ask you today, or at least how many I was going to prep. But yeah, I think they also, those two particular cases, Wolfram and Ken Henry, they gave you long answers. I mean, Ken was telling lots of stories, which was fantastic. And Wolfram, it seems like he was kind of just thinking out loud. I mean, he's got excellent thoughts. So it was great for the listener but yeah. 

Are there any guests that you really have wanted to have on the show but have turned you down? I'm thinking in particular of an annual tradition that you have with a certain Australian politician. 

WALKER: Yes, I have an annual tradition where I email Paul Keating’s secretary and get rejected. But you generally shouldn't go through the gatekeeper. It's just their job to say no. You should go through some kind of personal connection. So that annual tradition is just like a complete lazy sort of hail Mary on my part. There's actually a better way to get to Paul Keating.

THORNTON: Listeners, if you know... 

WALKER: There have been some people where I think they'll probably say yes. And then I've just been surprised when I've received no response or a negative response. Some people I've wanted to get on but haven't. One is George Laikoff, who wrote that book Metaphors We Live By, about how a large part of our cognition is just pattern-matching. 

Who else? A bunch of people. It's probably like the academics who surprised me because I'm like, “Surely they'll speak to me.” 

THORNTON: Was it Chad? 

WALKER: Yeah. Someone who I mentioned to you when we caught up last week – Chad Jones, the economist at Stanford who's done a lot on growth. He was a negative earlier this year. So that was kind of surprising. There are a bunch of more high-profile guests that I'm chipping away at the moment. So I guess they haven't said yes yet, but that's not necessarily a no. I probably shouldn't share any of their names, because I don’t want to jinx it. 

THORNTON: That's fair enough. You don't want to jeopardise your chances. Yeah, that's funny. 

Well, one of your listeners has come up with a drinking game that they posted on an Apple Podcasts review, which is that every time one of your guests says something like, “Wow, that's a really good question,” or, “That's a very interesting question,” they have a drink. And it's no surprise that they get sloshed by the end of the. The Danny Kahneman interview at the very end, as it's kind of fading out, you hear him say, “You're a very good interviewer.” And then in the Ken Henry interview, he pays you a very big compliment, I think around the 1 hour 30 mark where you ask him the question about him being colourblind and whether that was a problem, he's like, “Wow, you're too well briefed, Joe.” 

Do you think of yourself as a naturally good interviewer, or is that something you've had to learn over the last couple of years? 

WALKER: I guess there are all of these aspects to it which are innate, like the ability to speak well, to think well so you're formulating good questions. I suppose I've honed the technique on top of that. And what those people are gesturing at when they say, ”You're a very good interviewer,” is, maybe two things, actually, and this is quite Zen because these are almost like opposing things, or orthogonal things. One is doing really deep research so that you can ask questions that haven't been asked before, and then the other is actually being present in the interview so that you can respond to what they actually say and follow up on it. Because the magic, or a lot of the marginal value of an interview, is in the follow-up, because that's where you can open up something that hasn't been discussed before. 

THORNTON: Yeah. What percentage of good interviewing then, would you say is just good scholarship, good preparation? 

WALKER: I think it's very high. For me, the main lever for the quality of an episode is just: how much prep can I get done? Maybe, I don't know, 80%.

THORNTON: Yeah okay. And do you think your reputation now gives you a certain level of credibility to bring on new guests this year? Did you find that any of the guests you reached out to kind of knew who you were or knew of you? Or maybe they look you up and they go, “Oh, he's interviewed hundreds of people.” 

WALKER: I'm not sure how many of them already knew me, but certainly I expect them to look me up after I send the initial cold email. And the developer I worked with and I designed my website to optimise for guest conversion. So it's not actually so much for the listeners. The home page of the website is actually designed to persuade a guest who's considering coming on the show to say yes. 

THORNTON: Nice. That’s interesting. I never would have guessed that. Wow. 

Because you get into such depth on these topics and you're talking with world experts, how often do you find yourself, if ever, feeling out of your depth or a little bit like an imposter even, like “This just got very technical very quickly,” or something like that. 

WALKER: All the time. 

THORNTON: This gives me more empathy for you by the way.

WALKER: I'm acutely aware of the fact that even with the research and preparation I do – which to be clear, I'm never happy with, I never feel like I've done enough – but even with that (so putting in like tens of hours of reading and research and talking to other experts – doing that as preparation for an episode), I've still barely scratched the surface of their field, and a lot of that knowledge is just very flimsy. 

THORNTON: Which episode did you have to prepare most for this year? I have a conjecture. 

WALKER: Okay, well, tell me your conjecture first. 

THORNTON: Well, I was well and truly out of my depth in the Katy Karikó interview

WALKER: Okay. 

THORNTON: I mean, that's just because I don't know very much biology. But if it were me in your shoes, that would be the one I would have had to prepare the most for. 

WALKER: Yeah. Interesting. 

THORNTON: I mean, it's like with a lot of these things, it's just learning the language of the field, right? 

But you already know the language of economics and a good chunk of the language of philosophy. You have had other biologists on, but like evolutionary biologists and this sort of thing, not so much immunologists. Oh, you had Peter Doherty on actually. But you tell me. 

WALKER: So it wasn't Katy. I actually felt very underprepared for that episode. And it probably seems to you or to other people who didn't do the cursory research into microbiology that I did that I was well prepared because I'm speaking the language, but it's very surface level kind of knowledge. I was actually embarrassed about how under-prepared I was for the episode. And I sat on it for a few months because I was like, ‘This was such an important person, this was her first ever long form podcast. I just didn't do as good of a job as I should have.” Which was probably too self-critical, but that's just a reflection of... So I don't know, how much prep would I have done for that one? Maybe like 10 to 20 hours or something like that. Much of it on the flight, on the way over. 

Okay, let me reframe your question from “who did I have to do the most prep for” to “who did I do the most prep for” this year. I will say Wolfram. 

THORNTON: Yeah. Okay. That was a very in depth interview. 

WALKER: Yeah, I'll say Wolfram. 

THORNTON: Had you already read A New Kind of Science before?

WALKER: No. I mean, I was aware of it, I’d dabbled in it in the past, but I'd never actually seriously tried to read it. 

It's an impressive book. It's an intellectual achievement. Whatever you think of his conclusions and whether or not you want to accept them, just the idea of A New Kind of Science as an intellectual project is so ambitious and compelling. 

THORNTON: So if you hadn't read that book, what made you ask him to come on the show in the first place? What was it? Was it the Physics Project, or? 

WALKER: I was vaguely familiar with all of his work. I felt like there hadn't been a great canonical Wolfram episode to date. But maybe there has been – he's done a lot of media, so I'm not sure about that. But I felt like I could add some kind of marginal value there. And he was relevant to the AI topic. I think that actually, that was my original route in. I wanted to get his thoughts on AI, which we actually run out of time to cover in any depth. 

THORNTON: I was going to say that yeah, you only just touch on it towards the end.

WALKER: Which is kind of a shame. But we're planning a round two, so hopefully we can talk about it then.

THORNTON: Oh cool. For 2024?

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: Oh, that'd be great. Okay, so before we jump into some of the themes, which AI will be one of them... But before we get there, I think you wouldn't put a listener in my chair if you didn't value the contributions of your listeners. But there was one point this year where you did not care what your listeners had to say. Do you have any idea what I'm hinting at? 


THORNTON: On August 7, Joe, you posted a Twitter poll asking your followers whether you should change the name of the podcast to something less ridiculous than The Jolly Swagman Podcast. Loaded question, by the way. Almost 70% of the 431 people who responded said, “No, leave it as is.” 20% said, you should change the name. 10% were not sure. But you changed the name. What's going on there? 

WALKER: So I'm trying to persuade the marginal listener to subscribe to the show. And there was probably a massive selection effect where the people responding to that poll were existing listeners who had some kind of attachment to the name, some kind of status quo bias. But I don't care about them. Well, I do care about them, a lot. But I don't care what they think about the name, because they'll keep listening to the show in all likelihood. I'm trying to convince the person listening from, I don't know, America, who is finding the show for the first time and is like, “The Jolly Swagman? What the f—k is this?”, who is rightly confused, or was rightly confused, about the old name. 

THORNTON: Fair enough. 

WALKER: Do you think it was a good move? 

THORNTON: I mean, look, I'm an Australian, so I liked “The Jolly Swagman”. I think probably long-term [changing the name] was a good move. I mean, are you familiar with – Friedrich Hayek makes this distinction between the law and the legislation. 


THORNTON: The law is like what everyone actually does, and then the legislation is what's written. I feel like for your existing listeners, you might have changed the legislation, but I don't know that you changed the law. Like, if I'm telling someone about the podcast, I'll still say “Jolly Swagman”, usually. “Oh, no, it's called The Joe Walker podcast.” 

WALKER: I'm conscious of some acts of rebellion like that. I think there's also a subreddit as well, which is still “the Jolly Swagman”, probably will stay that way. 

THORNTON: Another thing you did this year was what you called an experiment, which was to open up the show to listener contributions and to see how much of the show you could support just via listener contributions. So how's that experiment gone? 

WALKER: Yeah, so opening up to financial contributions. This started maybe one or two months ago, just after I kind of quit my day job and started to give more time to the show. So, to be clear, my hypothesis was never that it would be able to financially sustain the show. I suspected that it wouldn't, and in part that was because I'd seen other shows attempt the same experiment and just fail to sustain the model. So the most famous example there is The Tim Ferriss Show. I think several years ago he tried to switch to a subscriber model and remove all ads from his podcast. And it might have lasted like a month or two when he switched back to the ad model

I’d procrastinated on doing it for years because I didn't like the feeling of rattling the tin, so to speak. But I kind of become persuaded that maybe rattling the tin is better than publishing some sponsor that I don't have a close connection to or whatever. 

So I was correct, it's not enough to sustain the show. But I was super moved and touched by the contributions I received, regardless of the size, just from all sorts of people. It's actually really motivating and it's a big morale boost, because people are, I guess, revealing their preferences in a really clear way. So, yeah, I was touched and grateful to all of the people who contributed. 

THORNTON: Yeah, you can kind of see your caution, even when you made the announcement that you were opening up to listener contributions, because you said something like, “Please don't give if it's going to detract from you giving to charity or anything else.” 

WALKER: Yeah. And that's not me trying to do some virtue signalling thing. I just genuinely feel like there are probably better causes to give your money to. I'll be fine if you don't support the show. 

THORNTON: Well We'll see how that goes in 2024. Alright, let's talk about some of the best moments of the year, maybe the best episode and most underrated episode of the year, before we dive into themes. So you actually have not told me what the listener best episode was. 

WALKER: In terms of absolute downloads. 

THORNTON: Yeah, let's say in terms of absolute downloads. So I'm going to guess. I'm actually going to guess top three. 

WALKER: Sure. Will you rank them? 

THORNTON: I will rank them. I'm probably going to be way off. 

WALKER: We'll see. 

THORNTON: I’m facing a situation of radical uncertainty. 

WALKER: This is resolvable uncertainty. 

THORNTON: Okay, so I'm going to say top episode of the year was Ken Henry, because you have a lot of Australian listeners. Then Stephen Wolfram. And I think I would have put Katy Karikó in third, but I'm actually going to say it's been displaced by the Pinker-Deutsch interview that you just did a couple of weeks ago. So there's my top three. 

I'm not just making a wild guess here. That's based on, in part, on the different engagement on Twitter with the posts that you make when you're announcing the episodes. So those are the three posts that I think have gotten the most engagement out of any of the episodes. But let's see whether that's a reasonable indicator of downloads. 

WALKER: Pretty good. So I think you got two out of three, which is good. That's a credit. 

THORNTON: Thank you. 

WALKER: So Ken Henry was the top. 


WALKER: Daniel Kahneman was the second. And Pinker and Deutsch are likely to be the third; third place at the moment is Katalin Karikó, but they'll probably outstrip that. 

THORNTON: Okay. That was pretty good. 

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: What do you think were the underrated episodes this year? 

WALKER: So originally I would have said Katalin Karikó, but she got all of these downloads after winning the Nobel Prize, and the episode went semi-viral again. Let's see. I'm trying to remember the episodes I've done this year. I think maybe the Peter Singer one

THORNTON: Yeah, okay. 

WALKER: That really underperformed downloads-wise. 

THORNTON: Do you think just because he’s a repeat guest? 

WALKER: He's kind of saturated the podcast market. He's a repeat guest. But I think that was arguably the best of the three I had done with him. So, yeah, I might say Peter Singer. 

THORNTON: Okay. Most underrated. 

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: The data on retention was a little different, which I think surprised – this I do know – it surprised me and it surprised you. 

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: So the episode that had the highest listener retention… which, correct me if I'm wrong, but that's just defined as listening to the end of the episode. 

WALKER: Yeah. It's like the percentage of people who listen are still listening by the end. 

THORNTON: So the highest retention was on the Palmer Luckey episode, followed by Peter Turchin. What do you make of that? I mean, I have a theory, but I want to hear yours. 

WALKER: So Palmer still puzzles me. One possible explanation is: so this retention data is from Spotify, so I'm using it as a proxy for the retention for the episode overall. 

THORNTON: There's a selection problem. 

WALKER: There's a selection problem. People who use Spotify are 5 to 10% of my audience. 

THORNTON: I use Spotify. 

WALKER: Yeah. I think that audience skews young as well. So to the extent that Palmer as a guest resonates with a younger audience, that might explain why his retention was higher than all the other episodes. 

Maybe he's also just a compelling speaker. Maybe it was a good interview. I felt kind of disappointed by it, because I felt like sometimes he gave very vague or general answers to questions that were interesting. 

THORNTON: He wouldn't share his list with you. 

WALKER: Yeah, he shared one or two things, which was cool. So you're referring to his list of forgotten technologies. 

THORNTON: Fifty forgotten technologies. 

WALKER: Yeah. So that's a puzzle. 

Turchin – again, I don't know. Maybe there's some kind of drama in hearing about why the US is going to fail as a society, so people want to keep listening.

I guess also, they were shorter episodes. Each was under 2 hours. That might help as well. 

THORNTON: That's true. 

WALKER: What's your theory? 

THORNTON: I'll come back to the Palmer Luckey episode, but I think in the Turchin episode you kind of hyped up elite overproduction at the beginning, but you didn't talk about it until quite a bit later on. Maybe by that point people were kind of like, “I'll just listen to the [end]. I was listening because I wanted to hear about elite [over]production.” 

WALKER: Was that true in your case? 

THORNTON: No, I would have listened to the whole thing anyway. 

WALKER: Okay. 

THORNTON: Obviously I listened to all of the episodes of the year. I probably shouldn't be sitting here if I didn't listen to all of them. 

WALKER: So you think there was a hook? 

THORNTON: There was a hook. I do think there was a hook.

In the Palmer Luckey episode, that's a more interesting case to me. One thing is that I think if we were to divide your guests into two broad classes for the year, we could call them the kind of the politically influential class and then the kind of academic heavyweights. And I think all of your guests, except for Palmer Luckey, fit into those categories. He wasn't sort of academically influential; he sort of made these engineering feats, in a sense. So he was the odd one out in some sense. But also, I think the conversation was just a lot lighter than the academic... When you're interviewing, you know, academic people, the conversation can get dense very quickly. 

WALKER: Right. 

THORNTON: You talked about fiction and Sci-Fi and augmented reality. And those are kind of fun topics. It's easy listening, right? So that would be my guess. But who knows? Maybe you’re listeners will reach out to you and tell you.

WALKER: Yeah. It's a good guess. 

THORNTON: Okay, let's talk about some of themes from the year. 

WALKER: Okay. 

THORNTON: We've already mentioned AI, and AGI should make its way in there, too. What would be some of the other themes that you would say have run through the year? Some of the dominant themes. 

WALKER: Firstly, I don't feel like AI was a massive theme. I'm not sure what you think, but I feel like this was kind of a blind spot for me in the show in 2023. Relative to how hyped and important it was as a story in the world, I don't think I gave it much coverage – which was a somewhat deliberate decision, to just hedge against that. 

But some of the recurring themes include the importance of partnerships in doing creative work. So this question of are pairs the optimal creative unit? This came up with Kahneman, because of his famous partnership with Amos Tversky. It came up with Karikó, because of her partnership with Drew Weisman. I think it came up with Wolfram in the negative sense of his being very famously a lone Wolfram (pun intended). Could he have done his work more quickly if he had the right partner? Yeah, we discussed Hardy and Ramanujan as well. 

It might have come up in… 

THORNTON: Came up in Rhodes. 

WALKER: Oh, did it? 

THORNTON: He said to you that he had some research or he'd found some research that the dyad was like a stable mathematical structure or something. 

WALKER: That's right. 

THORNTON: I think, to use some Aussie slang, you were, like, frothing over that a little bit. 

WALKER: Yeah. And he was talking about that in the geopolitical context. But I was hoping that there was some interesting game theory that might have sat behind that. 

THORNTON: You did link the article in the transcript

WALKER: Right. It wasn't that helpful in the end, that article. But, I mean, it was interesting on its own terms. So that's one theme. 

Maybe another one is the UFO discussion. 

THORNTON: Came up twice. 

WALKER: Yeah, I tried to inject that where I could. It just baffles me that people aren't talking about that more. And so the episodes I spoke about that in were Richard Rhodes and Palmer Luckey. 

THORNTON: Yeah, he [Palmer Luckey] had some outrageous theories, which were a lot of fun.

WALKER: Can you remind me? 

THORNTON: I think he was saying that he thought that maybe it was much more likely to be some civilisation from a very long time ago who's kind of been living among us or something like that. 

WALKER: Oh right. Or time-travelling humans – that’s one of the big hypotheses. 

THORNTON: Yeah, or something like that. 

Whereas Richard Rhodes, I think, was maybe a lot more reasonable. Not that a bit of speculation isn’t fun. 

Any other ones you'd put on that list of things that came up in the year? 

WALKER: I mean, those are the two that come to mind in terms of object-level topics. You could probably say that there were deeper, more philosophical themes, but, yeah, I don't know. I'm curious to hear your thoughts. 

THORNTON: This is good. So, firstly, I suppose it sort of depends on how we define what a theme is. AI or AGI came up in six of your episodes this year. 

WALKER: Okay, so I was relevant. 

THORNTON: You were relevant. So Kahneman you asked whether AI systems will reduce bias. 

WALKER: Oh yeah. And will they do it consistently or affect some biases more than others. 

THORNTON: Yep. And then in your Palmer Luckey interview, you asked him about VR in a post AGI world, and the risks of a country like China getting AGI. 

WALKER: And will AGI actually deliver a more final kind of means of experiencing and communicating to us than VR.

THORNTON: Yes. And then in the Richard Rhodes episode, you drew this parallel between the development of AGI, and the making of the atomic bomb. You didn't really talk about it, but it did come up. 

Obviously, you did talk about this with Stephen Wolfram, in terms of the implications of computational irreducibility for AI. But it sounds like we've got another episode coming that will flesh that out a little bit more. 

Then it also came up in the Peter Singer episode, because you asked him about the ethics of superintelligent beings. 

WALKER: And if AI take over and cause human extinction, should we just kind of fade into history and wish them well, from a utilitarian standpoint.

THORNTON: Yeah. And he said yes. 

And then, of course, in your last episode, you talked kind of at length – well, I mean, Stephen Pinker and David Deutsch talked about this at length.

So I think it was maybe more relevant than you think. 

WALKER: Yeah, I think you're right. Although I still feel as though I didn't give it the truly rigorous coverage that it deserves, including and especially in the Pinker and Deutsch episode. 

THORNTON: Fair enough. We'll get there. Yeah, we'll get to that episode. 

So, another broad theme, I think, that came up through the year, and maybe this is just something that's true about the podcast and less so about this year, but you talked a lot about progress of science and progress of technology. 

WALKER: That's a good pickup. I should have added that as a theme. 

THORNTON: So I mean, to name a few. The entire Richard Rhodes episode is essentially about progress of science and technology, right? The making of the atomic bomb. Katalin Karikó's episode was about the development of mRNA. I mean, this came up as well in the Stephen Pinker and David Deutsch episode: at the end of the episode, you asked them, I think, three questions about progress. And you talk about this with Wolfram as well. I mean, in a sense, you could even think of the Peter Turchin episode as progress of history or ‘science of history, progress of science’. It’s a loose connection, but yeah. So I'd say that was definitely a big theme this year. What do you think? 

WALKER: I agree. I agree. And now that you're kind of reminding me of it, it's definitely something that I was – similar to the UFO topic or the pairs topic – trying to consciously inject into conversations. When I do that, I'm doing it because I feel like the topic is underrated or underexplored or underdeveloped, and I just want people thinking about it more. And obviously there's been a lot of talk about the Great Stagnation and problems in science and the over-bureaucratisation of science. But trying to direct people to thinking more about, “Okay, well what are the solutions out of this? How can we make science better?”, was one of my little goals this year. 

THORNTON: That's cool. I was actually going to do a little segment on ‘things Joe thought was underrated this year’, but you only used the word, like, three times to describe things that you thought were underrated, so I didn't think it was quite enough. So let's maybe talk a little bit about dyads and pairs. So you have this running hypothesis that pairs can advance science –

WALKER: Or any creative field. 

THORNTON: Yeah, okay. Or any creative field, in a way that individuals cannot, and that groups of three or more also cannot, because they can kind of bounce ideas off of each other. I know you like the book Powers of Two

WALKER: I actually don't like that book, but it's a good reference book. And it was sort of an entry point into the topic. 

THORNTON: Okay, well that's good, because I want to ask you kind of where did this hypothesis come from for you, and where does it sit now at the end of the year, having talked with a couple of different people about it. 

WALKER: Yeah. I mean, the conversation with Kahneman about it was pretty special and touching. Like the way he talked about Amos and the emotion that he spoke about him with. 

So originally, my thinking on this came about through contemplating examples of pairs or noticing lots of examples of very fertile pairs – maybe the first of those was Kahneman and Tversky – and that was actually long before I kind of encountered Josh Shenk's book Powers of Two

I think now, my thinking on it is maybe a little more developed in that I've tried to think of, like, okay, how do you model this? Or at what points are pairs the optimal creative unit? So that's where I'm at now, and I'm intending to write this up into some kind of blog post or essay that I'll publish on my website in the new year. 

THORNTON: Very good. So I think you said that you were jealous of Kahneman – and he said you should be. I mean, are you looking for that pair, that kind of intellectual person to spar with, in a sense. Did you think you'd found that in Gus at the beginning of the podcast? Or I mean, that's going back a while now, but where do you sit on that? 

WALKER: So, yeah, Gus is my friend who I originally started the podcast with, but he stepped back; he moved to New York for work, and I was probably always slightly more passionate about it than him, so he handed the reins over to me. I think we had a good dyad, but I don't think two-person interviewer podcasts work as a format. The reason for that is the big value-add in a conversation podcast is in the follow-up question, because that's where you start to explore nuance or go in directions that previous interviews haven't gone before with that guest. And if you have two interviewers, we're not telepathic. So I might have a great follow-up question, but if my co-interviewer jumps in with the next question, that moment's lost forever. 


WALKER: So I don't think that two person interrogation works as a format. But I suppose it's plausible that I could have someone else who works with me on the show behind the scenes, who helps me prepare or does the operational stuff, or admin, or helps with the guest selection, and they are like one part of a dyad. I do need help with the show on an ops front. I guess, I'm not necessarily looking for an intellectual partner for the show, per se.

But I think for other projects in life, I think, yeah, that would be amazing. 

THORNTON: You just said that you were going to potentially be writing up something about dyads, some essay or something. You're clearly wanting to pursue some other intellectual activities, right? So insofar as those things go, do you think that… I suppose you'll be looking for someone to do that with, or you just sort of know what you want to do and you're going to get on with it? 

WALKER: I think for the essays and blog posts and things I want to write, I know what I want to do and I just want to get on with it. I think there are probably more ambitious projects where a partner would be a massive benefit, like starting a company, that kind of thing. You always need a co-founder. 

THORNTON: Yeah. Have you got a company in mind already? 

WALKER: I mean, I guess I have different ideas. Nothing that I'm seriously working on yet, but probably things that I'll start doing next year. 

THORNTON: Okay. Very cool. Well, maybe let's dive into some of the episodes a little bit. I mean, we can start at the beginning of the year with the Daniel Kahneman episode. One of the moments that surprised me in this episode was when you asked him about radical uncertainty and he sort of didn't know what you were talking about. I kind of expected him to understand what you were saying immediately – this idea of not being able to place subjective probabilities on events or something like this. I mean, you explained what you meant to him and correct me if I'm wrong, but you had John Kay and Mervyn King's book sitting on the table in that interview. 

WALKER: I did. 

THORNTON: Did he have a flick through it afterwards? First off, were you surprised at that as well? 

WALKER: Yeah, I think I remember being surprised. Because it's kind of like one of the big foundational vectors of objection to their work. And I'm sure he's contemplated it before. It might have just been the case that he didn't hear me with my Australian accent, but yeah, I don't know.

Because certainly on the way out of the interview, I had some – as I mentioned to you last week – had some books sitting on the side table (because I travel with a pile of books, often ones that are relevant to the interviews I'll be doing). One of them was Mervyn King and John Kay's Radical Uncertainty. And he kind of pointed at it and commented on it as if he had actually read. 

THORNTON: Okay, that’s interesting.

WALKER: He said, “That was a strange book,” and pointed at it. 

THORNTON: Doesn't seem like much of a compliment. 

So this is going to be a bit of an oddball question, but you used to write a blog a long time ago and this blog was your thoughts on books that you were reading? 

WALKER: Yeah. I didn't even know this was still discoverable.

THORNTON: So this is still discoverable if you know the link and if you go to the josephnoelwalker.com or whatever, slash blog or I can't remember exactly what. If you look it up, you know “Joe Walker blog”, you'll find it. 

WALKER: Right. I took it down because I was so embarrassed. 

THORNTON: So you click on this thing and then it's just got like Lorem ipsum text at the top, and then it's got all of your old blogs. But this was up until, I don't know, two years ago. Something like that. 

WALKER: Oh, so it's not discoverable? 

THORNTON: Well, you can find it if you search on Google for it, but it's not discoverable from the website. But this is the thing – I only learned this recently, actually – if you create a page on Google sites or something, but then you don't include a link to it on the navigation bar, people can still access it if they know the URL. 

WALKER: Right. 

THORNTON: So I thought, I wonder if it's still available? Lo and behold.

When you read Thinking, Fast and Slow for the first time, it took you about three months to read that book. Why did it take you so long? 

WALKER: It's just really dense. 

THORNTON: Okay. I mean, there were lots of other dense books that you were reading at the time, kind of going back, and they were only taking you sort of one or two weeks. Was there anything special about this particular book? 

WALKER: I wasn't reading it continuously. I was probably reading other things as well, and context-switching with other books. But I think from memory I must have finished it sometime in 2017? 

THORNTON: Yeah, I think it was 2017, January to April or something like that. 

WALKER: Yeah. I think I remember wanting to actually internalise it, and so I spent a lot of time just re-reading stuff, making sure I'd understood it. And it's a dense book. So that's probably why. 

I mean, to my credit, I dare say most people who own that book haven't read it or haven't finished it. I actually made the effort of finishing it. 

THORNTON: Well done, well done. Have you wanted to interview Kahneman since then, or has that been kind of on your list for a long time? 

WALKER: Yeah, I think I might have emailed him in the early days of the podcast and then maybe roughly every year since then. 

THORNTON: So the persistence pays off. 

WALKER: Yeah. And in a way, it's kind of good that he didn't agree initially because it would have been a radically different interview, a much worse interview, if he'd come on the show in the early days. 

THORNTON: Okay, I have to ask you about one question that you didn't ask Daniel Kahneman. So you talked about his book Noise. In May of 2021, I think the economist Rachel Meagher posted a tweet saying that the book contains a repeatedly incorrect claim about correlation and causation, which was basically that zero correlation implies no causation. I mean, for anyone wondering, the kind of classic example, which is the one that Rachel gives, is you're driving a car and you hit a hill and so you pump the gas, but your speed going up the hill is constant. And so the correlation between how hard you're pressing the gas and your speed is zero. But obviously they're causally related. 

So you kind of went there with him on priming, and I was expecting you to go there with him on this part of the Noise book, and you didn't. And I was just wondering why. Were you aware of this?

WALKER: Yeah, absolutely. It's a great question. I was aware of this. I think I may have even shared it in my weekend newsletter at some point. I thought Rachel was right. I didn't feel like I was adding any value by asking him about it. I'm pretty sure him and his co-authors responded, Cass and Olivier. I'm pretty sure they responded. And so what, am I just going to get another response on it from him? It doesn't seem like a great use of time. And maybe it felt a little too ‘gotcha’ as well. 

THORNTON: Yeah, it is a bit of a gotcha thing to ask. 

WALKER: I mean, do you think I should have asked it? 

THORNTON: I don't. I kind of expected that you might go there. 

WALKER: It seemed obvious.

THORNTON: Because you asked him about priming, right? There's been this big replication crisis. And I think that's not the only chapter of his book that's kind of come under question. And so, I don't know, maybe I expected you to go there, I'm not sure. But I understand why you didn't. 

Alright, let's talk about Palmer Luckey. You asked him this question about one lesson that he'd learned from Peter Thiel that was not in the book Zero to One. This is a book you read some seven years ago – you wrote a blog again. And his answer was kind of the main point of Zero to One. And I know you said earlier when we've been talking that you felt like Palmer gave you kind of vague answers. Were you disappointed with that answer? Were you expecting more? 

WALKER: I remember feeling immediately disappointed. I'd just imagine these situations where Peter's kind of put his arm around his shoulder and said, “Listen here, son, this is how you do layoffs properly,” or “This is how you raise your Series C and how it's different to your B,” or some kind of really specific tactical founder-to-founder advice. That's what I was hoping for. And instead he responded with basically what's the main message of Zero to One, which is just the idea of building a monopoly. 

What I maybe could have done differently in that is just modelling for him what I was looking for in a good answer, in the preface to my question. But maybe I did that. I don't remember. 

THORNTON: I actually don't remember either. Do you think that if you had have maybe given him more context or if he had have had more time to think, he might have been able to give you the answer you were looking for? 

WALKER: Possibly, but it's not clear whether he would have wanted to do that anyway. 

THORNTON: Yeah, I wondered that. Did you feel like he was withholding from you in the interview? 

WALKER: Yes and no. There was actually some great stuff that's never been shared before. The fact that he is writing his own Sci-Fi, or some stuff from his forgotten technologies list – I don't think he'd spoken about steam engines before, though I could be wrong. So I was genuinely happy with that stuff, and I was kind of patting myself on the back; I knew what questions to ask. But then I felt like there were other times where he was kind of bloviating. 

THORNTON: Yeah, okay. Did he send you his draft of ‘The Last Hot Rod’ Sci-Fi story that he's writing? 

WALKER: No, we didn't speak again. And that was the one this year where I never corresponded with the guest to arrange the interview. 


WALKER: He was in Sydney to speak at ASPI, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. It's kind of like a hawkish think tank based in Canberra. They had this conference where they brought in all these speakers. One of them was him. And I got a cold email from one of the organisers, I think maybe a PR person, saying, “We're holding these seminars and talks. This is the list of speakers. Are there any that you want to speak to.” And I looked through and I said, “Yeah, Palmer Luckey.” So they arranged it. 

And actually the paradigm when I went in was very much like I'm a journalist and this is like a media interview, because his handlers and a local Australian PR person were in the room when I went in and I had to ask them to leave because I was like, “This is like an intimate podcast conversation. I don't want an audience.” And they were quite concerned about that and asking him, “Are you okay doing the interview alone?” They totally thought of me as some journalist guy. 

THORNTON: Right. But they reached out to you to ask you who you wanted to interview? 

WALKER: Yeah, I mean, these people who were in the room weren't the same as whoever had reached out. 

THORNTON: Okay. So it wasn't like he was needing some good publicity and you just happened to be around.

WALKER: No, no. 

THORNTON: Cool. Let's move on to Ken Henry then. So I think the thing I enjoyed most about that episode was that Ken tells really good stories. He had a lot of really good stories. And so I was wondering whether he shared any stories with you behind the scenes that weren't on camera or if there were any kind of moments or interactions you had with him that would have stood out that the listeners didn't get to hear. I mean, it was a very long episode. Obviously you got through a lot, but. 

WALKER: Yeah, I don't think he shared any historical anecdotes that would have been of interest, off the mic. But certainly my interactions with him before and after the episode were really enjoyable and interesting. 

I have to say the MVP of this episode was my girlfriend. Because this is still when I was doing my day job, I didn't have too much time to prepare. So I think a few days before I started preparing I was reading a bunch of stuff, calling a bunch of people. I had my office at home just covered in post-it notes of the research I was doing – this is before I digitised my Zettelkasten system – and just didn't have too much time for it. So I was cramming the prep. I think I had like 2 hours sleep the night before. 

And I'm in Sydney. We did it at his farm in country New South Wales, probably like a four and a half hour drive from our house. So my girlfriend did all the driving. And I was in the car, doing last minute prep on my laptop, drinking coffee and chewing gum and trying to stay awake. 

And so we met at Wingham, where we did a swap-over. So then my girlfriend stayed in Wingham and I went with Ken in his ute to his property, which is quite a drive from Wingham. You have to go up a mountain, basically. I think the temperature dropped like four degrees or something, I remember him pointing it out on the dashboard.

Our families are from similar parts of New South Wales. And so we had that to bond over. But we were just chatting in the car on the way to his farm. So that was really nice, I guess just like getting to know him.

And also, after, his wife made us dinner, and chatting after the episode, that was quite nice as well. I think my abiding impression was just like a really humble, decent, kind guy. 

THORNTON: Definitely got that sense as a listener. Well, thanks to your girlfriend for being the MVP. 

How did you feel that interview compared with other interviews you've done with Australian politicians? You've done a number of interviews with Australian politicians. 

WALKER: It was clearly the best with interview I've done with any Australian politician or policymaker. 

It was better than the ones I've done with all the politicians, maybe for a systematic reason, which is just like they're maybe more into legacy building and manicuring their public image. Maybe policymakers would tend to be more honest. So, yeah, I think it's definitely the best interview I've done with an Australian. 

THORNTON: Yeah, you said that you plastered your wall with post-it notes. 

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: There's this picture of you, well, a picture that you posted to Twitter when you were prepping for your interview with Stephen Wolfram. You say you've like, terraformed the room. 

WALKER: My hotel room in Boston, yeah. 

THORNTON: Yeah, looks like you're redecorating. I mean, I was going to ask you whether that's how you prepare for all your interviews. It sounds like at least for two of the interviews you prepared this way. What's your method there? 

WALKER: Yeah, not for all of them. What I'd done was basically… Should I talk about my interview process? 

THORNTON: Yeah, sure. 

WALKER: So I try to read as much as possible, and talk to relevant people, because often you need the tacit knowledge that exists in a field. You need someone to be like, “Okay, forget all this other stuff. These are the two papers you need to read.” Or: “Okay, these really famous old papers are actually kind of obsolete now. And the cutting edge stuff is here, and you should read these three people.” It's really helpful to have someone like that. 

So I'll often have a loop where I do a lot of research and then I reach out to and try and talk to people, whether they're friends or people I've just cold emailed, in preparation for an episode. But you want to do a bit of research before you reach out to those experts with the tacit knowledge because you don't want to waste their time. And you need to know what are the right basic questions to ask. 

So, preparation process: I'm doing all this reading, talking to people. And then I'll be kind of writing notes to myself on post-its which I stick on the wall, and they then tend to coalesce around certain themes. And then I'll have other post-it notes for the questions. And as it gets closer to the interview, I'll rearrange the question post-it notes to form a sequence for the interview. So that's how I did Ken. That's how I did Wolfram. There's that photo of my hotel room that you mentioned where it's covered in post-it notes. I've done a few like that.

But my system now is way more digital. I'll have software where I've got all my notes written out and the notes can link to each other, and then that also links to flashcards, so I can help to memorise the actual material better. And then I'll have a Kanban board where I drag questions in and change the order. 

THORNTON: Nice. And do you retain much of that after the interview? 

WALKER: Not much. But now I'm using flashcards, I'm retaining a lot more. For people wondering what this world of…like, I've already mentioned the word Zettelkasten, talking about flashcards and notes, what all this is, I guess, actually have in mind like a system of learning that many people have kind of pioneered and written about. But one of the foremost thinkers there would be Andy Matuschak, who I did a podcast with last year. Basically, you try and make memory a choice by writing really good notes and then helping yourself retain that information with spaced repetition memory prompts. ‘Spaced repetition memory prompts’ sounds very fancy and formal, but you can just think of flashcards when I say that. And there are all sorts of apps and software tools you can use. 

THORNTON: Flashcards you study with progressively longer intervals. 

WALKER: Exactly. 

THORNTON: It's a great system, by the way. 

WALKER: Yeah. You use it too, right? 

THORNTON: For some things. Flashcards are extremely helpful for memorising things. 

WALKER: And use Anki for your flashcards. 

THORNTON: Yeah, I mean, it's open-source, so there are some things that it doesn't do as well. And it's not as pretty as something like Mochi, which I think is what you said you use. But you can pretty much get anything you need online. Somebody's written it. And if you really needed to, you could write something yourself. 

WALKER: Right. I also like Mochi because I write my notes in Obsidian and there's a Mochi-Obsidian plugin. So I basically just push stuff through from the notes into my flashcards in Mochi. 

THORNTON: That's cool. So one of the things you said before is that you kind of don't want to reach out to people until you know enough of the language of their field or the language of the things that they do. So this is actually one of the things that came up in your interview with Richard Rhodes, which he said “I had to learn the language of physics before I interviewed any of these scientists.” And also with Wolfram saying that there's kind of different intuitions in different fields. Do you feel like you've developed those? I mean, the podcast kind of has a repertoire of a couple of different fields now, right? In a sense, do you feel like you've developed those intuitions and the language that you need now? 

WALKER: I feel like I can speak with economists quite fluently. Preparing for an economics episode is just like way easier. And that might indicate that I have retained a lot of economic concepts and language. So I guess there are a few areas where I feel fairly fluent, economics being the main one. 

I think I've also developed a good general instinct for how to learn the jargon of a field. So reading a paper or a book or a blog article in a new field that you're trying to learn and having an instinct for, like, what are the terms of art here? Because often terms of art can be very well-disguised: it just seems like a very commonplace word, it's not capitalised, but actually it means something very specific in the context of that field. 

I feel like I've built up a really good intuition for: is that likely to be a term of art? And then switching to Google or ChatGPT where I'm like, okay, what does this mean in the context of this field? So you're bootstrapping yourself by just looking up the basic words – and flashcards can help with learning those as well. But yeah, I think learning the language of a field is a really good way to learn it. It makes everything a lot easier to understand. 

THORNTON: Yeah, for sure. I don't want to hone on this point for kind of too long, but I know Tyler Cowen has said before that when he's learning about a new topic, he'll often read multiple books on that topic, kind of one after the other, and then maybe read one of them again. When you're learning, or when you're kind of prepping for an interview, are you just sort of reading one thing at a time? Are you just like reading multiple things at the same time? Are you re-reading things? What does it look like for you? 

WALKER: It looks like complete chaos, just like someone with ADHD unleashed. Okay, so there's like two different approaches. One is you just focus on the source books, like the really high-signal things. It's like, what's the most important paper or the most important book in this field or subfield that's going to give me as much knowledge as possible. And the other way is like, okay, let's read a bunch of random stuff and if I notice things being corroborated among a lot of different sources or things recurring, then I can increase my credence in those things. And that tends to be more my approach, that second way of doing it. 

So I'll start by just reading a lot of random stuff that I found and kind of just building up an intuition for the basic concepts through osmosis or through triangulating different sources. And then I'll start to get more refined as I go. 

THORNTON: Makes sense. Let's talk about your interview with Stephen Wolfram. I found that he's obviously a very individual guy, the lone Wolfram, as you so eloquently put it. I thought that some of his takes were even counter to some of the other guests that you had on this year. So to give an example, you talked to him about working remotely and how his company's kind of been able to cope with that and adapt to that over the last few years. And his answer was very different to when you talked to Katalin Karikó about this, who kind of said, well, there's really a lot of value in doing things in person. What do you make of that? 

WALKER: What I make of it is there's not like a blanket rule for every company or team. I think remote work makes more sense for some organisations than others. Maybe in the case of Wolfram Research and Mathematica, there's something about that tool that means that remote work is more feasible. But generally I think there's a lot of value to being physically proximate to whoever your coworkers are. Not even from a collaboration perspective, but also just drawing succour and morale from being close to your colleagues. 

THORNTON: Do you think there's something different between the private sector and the kind of academic area on that front or not really. 

WALKER: I don't know. I haven't thought about it. Do you have thoughts? 

THORNTON: I don't know, I just thought it was interesting that Wolfram obviously runs a company, Katalin Karikó was talking about this in the context of her work with Drew Weissman and others – academic work. I guess, you know, Wolfram does academic work as well. I suppose maybe he's just more bullish on adopting new technologies. Or maybe he's just found that to be more successful. I don't know. I don't know that there's one right answer, necessarily. 

WALKER: The more kind of base explanation is just that's his personal preference and he's moulded his company in his image, and then he's just justifying it. 

THORNTON: That's true. I hadn’t really thought about it. There was also another thing I thought was amusing is that they both talked about the role of ego in promoting scientific progress. And it's funny to me that both of them seem to indicate that the work they do themselves, they don't do in pursuit of their own egoistic desires. But Katalin Karikó in particular seemed to see this as something that was kind of important for newer scholars coming into the field to be able to feed their ego. Do you think at the top that the people who make it to the top tend to be the people who aren't doing the sort of egoistic work, or rather they're doing the things that are important? Or even if that's a correlation, do you think there's a causation there? 

WALKER: I think it depends what you mean by ego. Ultimately, this can collapse into that philosophical conversation around, is altruism truly altruistic? And the answer is no, that these things are kind of nested within each other. I think the people who make it to the top of any field, including in science, have to be incredibly driven, incredibly motivated. And often I think that will be for egotistical reasons, which isn't a bad thing. 

THORNTON: One of the other things that came up in that interview was the sort of pseudo-randomness of technological innovation. I thought it was funny because your three-pronged attack on Peter Turchin's field. The first prong was essentially what Stephen Wolfram said, which is that technology development is extremely random. I think his exact words were something like knowing that something is going to happen is very different to knowing when something will happen. He gives this example of flat screen televisions and the extraordinarily slow progress of science. Did you kind of take that objection from your interview with Wolfram or you just had that? 

WALKER: No, no. It’s something I've been thinking about for years. And you can probably find it in early interviews, like with Mervyn King a few years ago. It's kind of an obvious objection. 

THORNTON: It is. Where do you sit with that now? I mean, you only really raised two of the points of the objection that you had. I think the third one was something about computational irreducibility, but he sort of answered it. This is Peter Turchin that we're talking about now, obviously. Did it change your mind? Did his response change your mind on that? Or do you feel like the objection still stands? 

WALKER: I think the objection still stands. But with Turchin, I wanted to be incredibly careful about – I wanted to be careful about this, and I wanted listeners to be careful about it – the reflex objection to Turchin's work is just the Popperian kind of: “How can you purport to know anything about the future? That's crazy. Growth of knowledge. Yada, yada. This is dumb. This project is just like a wild goose chase.” But his project is more sophisticated and nuanced than that. He's applying complexity science to look for patterns that we can use as explanations which might give us the ability to make what Popper would call conditional predictions. So, Popper doesn't reject all predictions outright. I think in The Poverty of Historicism he uses some examples from economics. Maybe it's like basic stuff around the laws of supply and demand where you can say, under certain conditions, it's reasonable to think that ‘this’ would follow. So, yeah, I was approaching Turchin very cautiously in that light and trying to be as charitable as possible. But I still think that the criticisms I raised stand. 

THORNTON: I certainly felt more amicable towards his field by the end of the interview. I don't know if you felt the same. 

WALKER: I had already gone through that process in the preparation. But I know what you mean.

THORNTON: Alright, let's talk about Katalin Karikó a little bit. This should be fun. I think a lot of your guests have a kind of intellectual honesty and humility about them. For me, though, Katy was the absolute standout this year in terms of humility. I mean, here's someone who has every reason to hate the system. She's been through a whole lot of strife, been rejected for grants. Her work hasn't been recognised the way that it perhaps should have been, at least in the past. And yet she's got this attitude or this aphorism she kind of attributes to Selye of “What can I do?” Do you think that her success and the success of her family as well – her daughter's an olympic rower – how much of that do you think is attributable to this attitude of, like, “What can I do?” 

WALKER: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, you can never re-run the experiment and see. But I feel like it is foundational to her resilience, and but for that resilience, she wouldn't have kept pushing ahead in the ‘90s and 2000s when she'd suffered all of these setbacks. 

THORNTON: Do you think it's a useful attitude to have? 

WALKER: I think so. 

THORNTON: I think that the counterargument would be something like, you look around you and you realise that you're kind of doing everything, and actually it's the society around you that needs to be changed and not you.

WALKER: Right. So there's a distinction between what you should do at the policy level and what you should do at the individual level. Obviously, at the policy level, you want to target your interventions at a higher level of abstraction. But all else being equal, if you were just giving an individual a piece of advice that you think would make their life go better, it would be to have those mindsets and those beliefs. 

THORNTON: Yeah, yeah, fair enough. Now, I think Katy is obviously not the first Nobel Prize winner that you've interviewed. I mean, you had Daniel Kahneman on the show earlier this year, but you have a whole slew of Nobel Prize winners. Correct me if I'm wrong: I do believe she's the first person to win a Nobel after being interviewed on the podcast. 

WALKER: Yeah, that's. 

THORNTON: So, I have a couple of questions on this. My first one is: I mean, you answered one of them already, which is that the episode kind of went viral again. But what was your reaction when you found out she won the Nobel? And I'll pair that with this question, which is like: at the very beginning of the episode, you say something in the preface, like “If and when a Nobel prize should be awarded for mRNA Katalin Karikó is among the top of the list for candidates as laureate,” or something like that. So, I mean, do you think that the Nobel committee were just big fans of the show? 

WALKER: I was happy when she won it. I was unsurprised, but I didn't realise it would happen soon. I thought it would take several years to play out because, as you know, the prize is awarded for…there needs to be some kind of real world impact of the work. So that's why, for example, with physicists, theoretical physicists, it will often be years or decades until they get the prize, because you're still waiting for that empirical validation. And all the COVID stuff has happened really recently. So, yeah, I was kind of, I guess, expecting it to take several more years. So the timing somewhat surprised me. But that she won it, that was unsurprising and entirely deserved. 

THORNTON: Predicting that things will happen versus when they will. 

WALKER: Exactly. 

THORNTON: And how much of a boost did that episode get after she won the Nobel? 

WALKER: It was significant. Not as much as it had already had. But pretty good for an episode that's already been out for, like, three months. 

THORNTON: Yeah, because you said it was her first longform podcast. But then I think when you posted the episode, you clarified and said it was her first English longform podcast. 

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: Why did you have to do that? 

WALKER: So I recorded it with her back in February, and then at that point – I mean, she'd done podcasts, but they're, like, highly-produced, kind of 20-minute, NPR-style ones where they get a few quotes from her. I didn't think she'd done, at least to my knowledge, she'd never done – and in my research, I hadn't seen that she'd ever done – one of the long, sit-down, extended, unedited conversations. So I was the first at the time we recorded it. But then by the time I published it, I saw, I just happened to go onto her Twitter profile, and she'd retweeted some German podcast she'd done, but she did it in German. So I changed it from ‘her first long form podcast’ to ‘her first long form podcast in English’. 

THORNTON: Nice. I mean, you've got claims on the first recorded podcast. 

WALKER: True. Yeah. 

THORNTON: Nice. Okay. You recorded that at her house, is that right? 

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: What was that like? 

WALKER: It was really cool. It was just me and her. Obviously, her daughter's grown up now and very successful. I think her husband was out, I don't know, working or something. And so we just sat down. We had the conversation.

THORNTON: At the dining table or something in the video, right? 

WALKER: Yeah, at her dining table. And then I think we took a break halfway through to get a drink of water. And during that break, and then after the conversation as well, she toured me around her house, and she had all of these orchid bulbs growing in glasses of water, because it was winter when we were recording, in the northern hemisphere, US. And so she had all these plants she'd brought inside. So the house looked like an arboretum, just full of plants. And she was showing them to me and explaining them. And then after the conversation, she took me up to her trophy cabinet, which her husband had built for her. 

THORNTON: You posted a photo of that on Twitter

WALKER: Yeah, I shared a photo of that with her permission. 

And this was before she won the Nobel, but it was just full of all of the most prestigious awards in science and humanitarianism. 

THORNTON: Bit surreal. Very cool. 

In your episode with Richard Rhodes – I mean, I figure I hadn't necessarily planned to go through them in order, but we're kind of going through them in order, so let's just sort of keep going through. 

WALKER: Sure, alright. 

THORNTON: In your episode with Richard Rhodes, I think you… I mean, we're in the same generation. I'm only a couple of years younger than you. So when you said that we really didn't grow up with any kind of fear of nuclear weapons, like, at all, it just wasn't even on our radar. I mean, no pun intended. 

WALKER: Nice. 

THORNTON: Yeah. Do you feel like that's changed for you now? Have you thought about that a lot since then as being a real risk? 

WALKER: Yeah. 


WALKER: Definitely. 

THORNTON: What do you do with that? 

WALKER: I think it can shift your priorities as to what a good career move is for you, how you can improve the world. 

THORNTON: Yeah okay. 

WALKER: I mean, all it's really done for me is maybe I want to have more guests on about that topic to try and raise awareness about it. 

THORNTON: I think that's a good idea. 

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: You had a couple of wow moments in that interview. Like, literally, you were saying “wow”. What was it kind of that stood out most for you? Or what was the thing that really blew your mind there? 

WALKER: Again, no pun intended. 

THORNTON: Yeah, that was a bad choice of words. Sorry.

WALKER: I mightn't have actually learned this in the interview, because I probably already picked it up in the research preparing for the interview, but I think just learning about the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, where about 100,000 people died in one night and about a million more were wounded. The Americans dropped incendiaries over Tokyo and created, effectively, a firestorm. That was shocking, because that was, I think, the single most destructive act of the Second World War. Worse than the bombing of Dresden, worse than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it was interesting as well, because it raises this question of… so nuclear weapons are essentially fire weapons, they work by creating a chimney of fire above a city, and that's what wreaks the most destruction. 

To what extent are they qualitatively or categorically different from the weapons that were already being used, or just sort of on an escalating gradient? And also, it raises a second question, which is, has the so-called Long Peace that we've enjoyed since World War II really been a nuclear piece, because if things like firebombing could already be so destructive, is the marginal deterrence between that and nuclear weapons so great that we can attribute this Long Peace to nuclear weapons. I don't know, but it raises the question. It's an important question. 

THORNTON: Yeah, for sure. I have to think about that. 

WALKER: Was there another moment where I was wowed that you know of? 

THORNTON: I think there were three wow moments. I actually don't remember what they are. I did a bit of textual analysis on your transcripts. 

WALKER: “Control+F Wow”. 

THORNTON: There were three wow moments, but off the top of my head, I don't remember what the other two were. 

WALKER: Okay. But that was one of them.

THORNTON: Definitely that was one of them. 

Richard Rhodes also said this thing about – it was kind of an offhand comment – but he said something like, if you're a specialist, you shouldn't write science, general science, because you don't know what people don't know. You're not a specialist, but you're clearly very well read and you interview people on a wide range of topics, which evidently you have a fairly decent knowledge of. Do you feel like you're – or that maybe you might be soon – in a position where you could write on some of these topics in a way that a general audience will be able to understand better than maybe the specialists? 

WALKER: Yeah, I think so. Yeah.

THORNTON: Is that something you want to do? 

WALKER: At some point, yeah. But it's got to be the right topic and I've got to feel like I'm burning to write about it and I have to write about it, and no one else will do as good a job as me. So I guess it's just about waiting for that topic. 

THORNTON: Like the dyads thing. 

WALKER: Yeah. That's probably better as just an essay. Or I can use the essay to test. I've never thought about writing a book about that. 

THORNTON: But you could. 

WALKER: With the right partner. With the right co-author. 

THORNTON: Yeah, that's right. How much Indian classical music have you listened to since your interview with Shruti

WALKER: Not a whole lot, to be honest. A little bit of Ravi Shankar

THORNTON: Me, too. 

WALKER: Oh, really?

THORNTON: Yeah. After the interview? 

WALKER: Did you like it? 

THORNTON: It depends how long you want me to talk about music. I enjoyed it. It develops melody and rhythm a lot more than it develops harmony. But I think that's just true of Indian music: there's a much bigger focus on melody. There's some sort of interesting scales and modes that they're using, and they can sort of improvise over and tweak a little bit. My favourite music is music that's harmonically complex. So someone like Jacob Collier, I don't know if you've heard of him.

WALKER: I have.

THORNTON: He really pushes the boundaries on harmony. That’s the music I love. 

So for personal taste, it wasn't my favourite, but I could appreciate it. 

WALKER: Why do you like the harmonically complex stuff more? 

THORNTON: For me, it makes me feel a lot more. It's like, wow, that is not the chord I was expecting to go there, but that really invokes some emotion or something like that, or pulls you a certain way. But again, I mean, that's just me. What did you think? 

WALKER: I feel that, too. 

THORNTON: It's very Western, right? That harmony is the focus. 

WALKER: Yeah. Someone actually messaged me, DMed me on Twitter, yesterday, saying, “Did Shruti give you her list of Indian musicians?” I actually need to get that from her. I'll get a Spotify playlist. I'll share it on Twitter. 

THORNTON: Yeah, nice. You should send it in your weekly email. That'd be good. I'd listen to it. Coming around to your interview that you said was perhaps the most underrated for the year. At the very beginning of your interview with Peter Singer, you said basically to the listener, stick it out for like 30 minutes, “We're going to talk about meta-ethics, we're going to talk about possibly the thorniest subfield of ethics. Just stick it out.” I thought that was the most interesting part of the interview, by the way, the first kind of 30 minutes. This idea of whether there can be kind of objective morals and esoteric morality, which got a little bit of publicity on Twitter. And I thought that was a lot of fun. But do you know if listeners really did listen to the end or if a lot of people kind of dropped off after the first part? 

WALKER: I think it had normal retention. 

THORNTON: Okay. So it didn't really make a difference. 

WALKER: But maybe it did because I said that thing.

THORNTON: Yeah you don't know what the counterfactual is, that’s true. 

WALKER: Exactly. But not everyone is like you. There might be people who don't go for that kind of more abstruse, philosophical stuff. 

THORNTON: Sure. Because then I think you talked later on about Animal Liberation because it's a 50 year or something like that [anniversary]. Now you first, again, I'm going to go back to your blog because… 

Look, let me go on a slight tangent here. When you're prepping for an interview with someone, you get to read everything they've put out. And these people have put out heaps and heaps of stuff. When I was prepping for this interview, I don't have any of Joe's writings to read through. I only have the podcast to listen to, and the few things that you've put up on your blog. 

WALKER: Yeah, well, I mean, you've found the few writings that I did have. 

THORNTON: I did. So you read Animal Liberation back I think it's January 9th of 2017 when you started this book. 

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: I'm going to quote you now on what you said in your blog. 

WALKER: Oh, God. 

THORNTON: Which was, “I'm suffering from cognitive dissonance as I write this. Few omnivores could read Animal Liberation from pages 1 to 248 and refuse to change their diet.” 

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: Have you resolved that cognitive uncertainty now? What are you feeling? 

WALKER: I haven't. And this is just evidence that I'm a selfish and imperfect person. No, actually, so I have, but in modest ways. I guess the point I was making is [Singer’s] logic is just watertight, and he just drags you to his conclusion, kicking and screaming. So, I mean, there are a few changes I've made after that. These are probably laughable to true animal rights activists or vegans. So I never eat veal because the way veal calves are raised is really inherently cruel. I never buy caged eggs. I mean, there are certain small things I did where it was like, okay, I just don't derive enough pleasure from this and I know that it causes so much suffering, I'm just not going to eat that kind of stuff. But am I still a meat eater? Yes. 

THORNTON: You just lost, like, 20% of your listeners. 

WALKER: Yeah. I mean, it's one of my big, I guess, failings where I know that I ought not to do this, and I still do. 

THORNTON: So you're operating on some kind of utilitarian calculus then? Internally, at least? 

WALKER: Yeah, but I don't think you need to be a utilitarian to necessarily come to that conclusion. 

THORNTON: Okay. How so? 

WALKER: Couldn't you justify not eating meat on virtue ethics or deontological grounds? 

THORNTON: I suppose. Definitely on deontological grounds. I don't know about virtue ethics. There it would be more like gradations of how moral it was for you not to eat the meat. Like, for somebody who really struggles not to eat meat, to choose not to eat meat, that would be, like, more ethical than someone who just goes “It's not really so hard for me to not eat meat.” 

WALKER: Do you eat meat? 

THORNTON: I do, yeah. But then again, I'm not a utilitarian. Yeah. Still. Before we get to Stephen Pinker and David Deutsch, we should touch on Raghuram Rajan. I mean, I think this is because I'm an economist. I actually didn't have any questions for you on that interview. I thought you did a stellar job. I think it was probably one of the most comfortable topics for you as an interviewer and something that has been talked about on the podcast a lot, right? I mean, housing. You've done a lot on housing, a lot on the GFC. I mean, I guess you didn't talk about housing in particular, but the GFC, which is obviously related to housing. And even central banking and monetary policy and these sorts of things. But I guess I just wanted to ask you, were there any sort of behind the scenes things that happened that you want to share from that interview? 

WALKER: Nothing in particular. I mean, I could go on a riff about the importance of the pre-interview for getting good answers from the guest. 

THORNTON: Yeah do it. Go on a riff. We’re only going to do this once.

WALKER: No, I won't, because it's kind of mean to someone. 

THORNTON: Okay. Do you have to name them in order to do that? 

WALKER: I guess not. The, I guess, assistant or whoever who I was corresponding with around organising the room at the Booth School of Business left me waiting for like 40 minutes because she just didn't check her email or something. And so then I was like 15 minutes late because of that, even though I was half an hour early in reality. And that would have seemed rude to him. And so it's super important to have the guest respecting you and feeling really good and relaxed before the interview even begins. And just how you convey yourself, how you carry yourself before you start recording. And I didn't actually correct that. I didn't properly apologise and explain the situation until after the interview. Should have done that before. 

So I feel like every little thing you do is necessary but not sufficient to making the interview go well. 

THORNTON: There’s always noise. 

WALKER: Yeah, exactly. What else can I say that's maybe more interesting to people than that? 

THORNTON: That was interesting. I meant to draw that out of you. That's my job. Could you feel the tension, like at the beginning of the interview, did you feel like he was a bit like, oh, who is this guy who's wasting 15 minutes of my time? 

WALKER: Maybe but he's such a good guy that if he felt that, he kind of pushed through it. I also asked him a question at the start to try and offset that, which was – I don't ask this every time, but this is a little trick – sometimes at the beginning I ask people, “What would make this a great use of your time?” 


WALKER: “At the end of the interview, if you're really happy with this, what does that look like?” So I asked him that. So that probably offset the lateness by showing him that I care about him. I'm not just some guy taking him for granted. 

THORNTON: What did he say, if you remember? 

WALKER: I don't think it was anything super surprising. At the end, though, he did say he was doing some public dialogue the following week on similar topics and he really enjoyed being challenged. It helped him prepare. 

THORNTON: Yeah cool. So the final interview for the year, I think, certainly had a different flavour than any of your other interviews. And that's because, in a sense, it was less of an interview and more of a moderation. Now, you said that you were feeling a little bit disappointed about this. This is an exaggeration, but you kind of don't talk for the first 40 minutes. Tell me a little bit about what happened there and maybe why you were feeling disappointed. 

WALKER: Yeah. So obviously this was the dialogue between Stephen Pinker and David Deutsch, their first ever public dialogue. Both are previous guests of the podcast. It was actually a listener of the show who gave me this idea. 


WALKER: So someone emailed me back in August or September and said, you should do this, there's an opportunity here. And I was like, that's a pretty good idea. So I organised it. And maybe I'll just take a quick digression to point out how much actually goes into that. I'm not just talking about scheduling and getting two people together at three different time zones (I had to get up at very early my time to do it). But also getting the equipment to them, getting them to use the equipment, video, audio stuff, so that the quality is sufficient that the audience will actually listen. And you're trying to coordinate all of this over email, and it's like the last thing either of them wants to do. You have to be super tactful and thread the needle very carefully. So there was a lot that went into that. 

And if people watch the interview and compare it with other interviews David Deutsch has done, i they look at the video, you'll notice that it's the best quality video that anyone has managed to squeeze out of David Deutsch. And the audio and video is really good for Pinker as well. So none of that happens easily. 

And this is where soon enough, I would just love to have a team where someone handles that for me. Because context-switching between trying to read up on the grammar explosion in kids so that I can create some kind of clash between that and Deutsch's idea of universal explainers – context-switching with that kind of research and then like, okay, what are the gain level settings on the Shure MV7 mic that I've sent to Pinker? And should I ask him to sit here or there? And what time of day is it? How is the sun going to be hitting his face in Boston? So should I send him a panel light? That's just stuff I ideally don't want to have to worry about. 

So there was a lot involved there to get the quality that we got in the end. 

A lot of people enjoyed it in terms of the actual dialogue. I was really disappointed with it relative to what I thought its potential could be. I think I needed to moderate way more heavily. What prevented that, at least in the first part of the conversation, was my software freezing. So I listened back to the recording, it was so painful: every ten to 15 minutes, you hear Steve and Dave go, “Joe, is Joe still there? Joe, where have you gone?” Because the thing we were using was crashing.

THORNTON: I never would have guessed that. 

WALKER: So I couldn't even track the conversation intellectually, let alone interrupt. Eventually, I messaged my girlfriend. She brought her phone downstairs, and I hotspotted to her phone. So that's how I fixed that. I guess it just overloaded the Internet connection with everyone using their videos. I should have foreseen that. I should have done a test the day before. Anyway. 

But, yeah, I do feel like it was under-moderated. I do feel like a lot of people who enjoyed it probably don't know what they were missing. And there'll be a lot of comments on YouTube, like, “Well done on staying out of the conversation. That's the best thing you could have done.” 

I'm not trying to impress those kinds of people. 

The thing is, you get trapped in a local maxima where it's super interesting to them to see David Deutsch and Stephen Pinker having a dialogue around some topic, but it's not a global maxima, and I should be directing them to the global maxima around what are the most interesting things we could be discussing. 

THORNTON: Okay. So what did you feel like you missed out from that global maxima? Were there things that you wanted to press them on that you didn't get to? 

WALKER: Yeah, there were, but I'm not sure how I should have handled these. I think one of the problems with my prep was I was thinking a lot about, okay, what are different questions I can ask them either separately or together, as if this was like an interview. Where a dialogue has a different dynamic. 

One thing in particular was missing from the discussion of AGI, and then another thing was missing from the discussion of differential technological development. So the thing missing from the discussion of AGI, which was more relevant to Pinker, was just like Bostrom's idea of instrumental convergence. Firstly, draw a distinction between terminal goals, the thing you're ultimately trying to get, and then instrumental goals, things that will help you get there. 

There are a lot of instrumental goals that we can reasonably expect different agents with completely different terminal goals to ultimately converge on. So things like self-preservation, resource acquisition, developing technology. 

And moreover, when we're training these models, we might inadvertently train sub-goals in them that are opaque to us. 

And so I feel like that was kind of like a core issue missing from the discussion that I wanted to put to Pinker. 

The second thing was, one of the questions I asked them was just like, can you name any technologies for which we would want to halt or slow the development?

THORNTON: The answer was emphatically yes. 

WALKER: Because where I was coming from with this is David Deutsch has this – I call it like, it's almost like the civilisational version of ‘the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’. It's kind of like let a thousand flowers bloom. The people on the side of progress and reason, their asset is good ideas, the scientific method, speed, progress. So ultimately, we just have to cross our fingers and hope that we beat the enemies of the Enlightenment. 

But what I wanted to put to them was just this idea that attack beats defence. And maybe you could ground it in some kind of first principles explanation around entropy or something. But you can think of destructive technologies that you can't easily undo or prevent or offset. So the ultimate example is a civilization that can create black holes and just launch them at you. There's no wall or anything you can build to defend against that. So, yeah, there are just some technologies that are so destructive that you can't easily undo that damage or prevent them, and then that compounded by the fact that all you need is just one bad act or one incompetent person, and you're screwed. 

THORNTON: So for AGI policy, what do you want me to take away from that? 

WALKER: Well, I guess that was in the context of a more broader discussion, but I suppose it does apply to AGI, and I don't know. I don't have very formed thoughts on this yet. It's something I need to think a lot more about. 

THORNTON: Yeah. Do you think that humans are really just Turing machines? 

WALKER: I guess my default position is yes, because I suppose I lean more towards materialism than dualism. But I'm totally open to the possibility that there's something special about the biological substrate that gives us our abilities. 

THORNTON: Yeah. That was obviously a point of tension between Stephen Pinger and David Deutsch, which is that Stephen sort of saw this as being an undecidable thing, and David Deutsch was saying, well, if you're a physicalist, then this is it, right? It's just computation and more computation. If we keep going down, we just hit more computation, maybe at the quantum level or something else, but, yeah. 

WALKER: And people on Twitter, and I think YouTube, bashed Pinker for that, kind of assuming that he was being somewhat naive. But even if he didn't make it in these words, I think there's actually a deeper point there around the emergent phenomena that lead to human brains and consciousness and sentience. 

THORNTON: Do you think you'll do another moderation like that again? 

WALKER: Never say never. I guess I've learned a lot about how to do them well.

THORNTON: Maybe in person next time. 

WALKER: Absolutely in person. So difficult to moderate virtually, because everyone is interrupting everyone else. When you're doing it in person, you can respond to the subtle cues in body language and micro-expressions of each other, and so it's much more easy to interrupt – and to moderate. But, yeah, I guess it just depends on what the opportunities are. I don't have any planned, and I generally much prefer just a one on one interview, for sure.

THORNTON: For sure. Would you do a debate? 

WALKER: Yeah, yeah. 

THORNTON: That episode was, in some ways, it kind of turned into a bit of a debate, at least in the first part. 

WALKER: Yeah. Do you have any debates you'd like to see? 

THORNTON: Yeah, actually I do. I'd like to see Judea Pearl and Guido Imbens or someone like that on causality. 


THORNTON: I posted something about this on Twitter a while ago. In economics, econometricians kind of think they have this good handle on how to identify causality, right? And we have methods for doing this, very good methods for doing this, like randomised control trials and these sorts of things. But there's this sort of theoretical computer science field of people who really think that you need models of causality, which they model these as kind of Bayesian networks or directed acyclic graphs. I don't know if you know much about this, but there's been these blog post wars between these two people where Pearl posts a blog up and then Imbens comments and then they have this back and forth where it seems like they're getting nowhere. And I'd just love to see somebody have them on and sit them down and talk to them about this. I don't know if you're familiar with either of their work. 

WALKER: I am. Yeah. 

THORNTON: Well, there you go. 

WALKER: Guido won the Nobel Prize last year?

THORNTON: He did, yeah, with Angrist. 

WALKER: Yeah. Okay. That's a great one. Yeah, I'll think about that. 

THORNTON: Take it under advisal. Wasn't expecting to give you my recommendation today, but there you go. Very good. Well, why don't we wrap up by talking about 2024 and maybe the future of the podcast? So one of the nice things that you were able to do this year was record video. You posted a lot of shorts online as well, of little clips of just kind of key moments. And then for the first time in the Stephen Pinker and David Deutsch episode, you had a full video recording. Which you said, as you just said, was very difficult to organise. Can we expect full video coming in 2024 and onwards? 


THORNTON: Very good. The reason being, I think it's probably the biggest growth lever for the show, just getting picked up by the YouTube and X algorithm – and the ability to publish clips that go viral. 

THORNTON: Did the video of the interview with Pinker and Deutsche get a lot of attention on YouTube? 

WALKER: Yeah, a moderate amount. Maybe it's up to like 20ish thousand views so far. But then more than that on Twitter. Or about the same on Twitter. So not bad. Not crazy, but not bad. 

THORNTON: It's pretty good. We'll see what happens next year. 

Can you tell us any guests that will be appearing in 2024? Have you got anything locked in yet? 

WALKER: I actually have zero locked in. Which is nice, because I don't need to prepare for anything yet. I'm going to use the next few weeks just to write some of these essays and blog posts I've been talking about. I have people I know that I want to get on, but I don't like talking about it before it happens. Because if it doesn't happen, people get disappointed. 

THORNTON: Yeah, but it also might put more pressure on those people to come on. 

WALKER: That's never a good way to get someone to come on, blackmail. 

THORNTON:  Yeah, probably. Good point. Another exciting thing happening for you next year is that you and your girlfriend are moving to London. 

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: How did that come about? And what effect is that going to have on the podcast? 

WALKER: So it's driven by the general intuition that we need to locate ourselves in a bigger network of potential collaborators, whether that's for the podcast or other projects. It will definitely help the podcast because I will be closer to guests in both the US, and the UK obviously. It's like a long journey doing those trips from Australia. 

THORNTON: We're going to get a whole year of brits. 

WALKER: Yeah, exactly. But what's the red-eye flight from London to New York? It's like 7 hours or something like that. 

THORNTON: Yeah. I thought it's a bit longer, but maybe you’re right. 

WALKER: Maybe it is longer. But still way better than going from Sydney. So yeah, that's what we're doing. And I think it's going to be a good move. 

THORNTON: Sydney's going to miss you. 

WALKER: Yeah, I'll be back. One day. 

THORNTON: When do you go? 

WALKER: We actually haven't locked in an exact date yet, but it's February next year. 

THORNTON: Nice. Sooner rather than later. 

WALKER: Yeah. 

THORNTON: Cool. Yeah. I wanted to ask you about your writings, but we've already talked about that, so I'm kind of happy to wrap things up there. It's been fun reflecting with you. Maybe before I say let's end things, are there any kind of takehomes from the year or behind the scenes things that you really wanted to share that you didn't get a chance to? 

WALKER: Yeah, there's one. So I feel like this is the biggest thing I've maybe not necessarily learned because I always knew it subconsciously or implicitly, but maybe this is the biggest lesson that's been reinforced to me as an interviewer, but you have to morally deserve the guest's best material. So you have to convey status to the guest, whether that's in how you come across in your emails or how you carry yourself at the beginning of the interview, how you demonstrate the level of research you've done through your questioning and the context and preface that you attach to your questions. Showing them that you've done a lot of work and you're the kind of person who deserves their best information is a really important but underappreciated way to make interviews go well. That was something I reflected on a lot this year. 

THORNTON: Yeah, it's funny, we talked about this when we talked about me doing this interview, which is that it kind of seems like a big signalling game. 

WALKER: It is.

THORNTON: You have to prove to them that you're worthy of their time. Or, I mean, you're saying not just worthy of their time, but worthy of good answers. 

WALKER: Worthy of good answers, exactly. Yeah, podcasts: it's just all one big signalling game. 

THORNTON: Maybe life is just one big signalling game. Cool. Well, thank you, Joe. And from all the ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, swagmen and swagettes, keep up the good work. 

WALKER: Thanks so much. Great questions. Really enjoyed it. 

THORNTON: It's been a pleasure.