Issue 08: Build your own internet

25th July 2022

A new film on Cuba’s DIY internet from Stripe Press, plus the beauty of maintenance, and a secret weapon against bacterial infections.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming soon to our Substack

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

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

What we’ve been up to

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

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

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

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

Even more

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

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

– Saloni, Ben, Sam and Nick