Updates on 2022/4/14

Nonlinear reading

Free the written word from the tyranny of linearity!

One interesting consequence of nonlinear reading (using the heatmap prototype I'm building) is that the reward curve for reading becomes much smoother.

With traditional prose writing, you may need to read some substantial portion of a text to get "into the meat" and begin to reap any value from what you're reading, but with nonlinear reading, you start learning and picking up new information immediately, and the closer you read, the more you pick up, in an almost linear correspondence.

This makes me want to read almost everything I come across to at least some level of scrutiny, and makes me at least skim-read texts that I otherwise wouldn't even have clicked on, because even 3-5 seconds of reading can teach me something new or give me good information about whether a closer read is worth my time.

Writer's context, reader's context

I’ve been toying with two things for the last week: (1) a thing that uses semantic distance/similarity to build a short outline from prose, and (2) a thing that just regurgitates the original text but with a "heatmap" highlighting key/summary sentences. I've been using it to read almost everything I can use it on. My takeaways so far:

  • The outline is rarely what I want, by itself. Because I often want to see "where did this sentence come from?" and see the surrounding in-document context of sentences, and taking sentences out-of-context makes them hard to read except for a certain class of writing like news reports where each sentence is a pretty stand-alone reporting of facts.
  • The heatmap is distinctly easier to read, because my eyes can sort of scan for highlighted sentences and adjust in real time how much detail I want to take in about a certain section, using highlights as cues. If I read a highlighted sentence and I feel like I’m missing context it’s also trivial to rewind visually to the start of the paragraph.
  • I also made a thing so that I can click on a sentence in the heatmap and see sentences that are most close to it semantically, which usually ends up being like "supporting reasoning" or "what else the author said about this" which is surprisingly useful. But I have to scroll around to see all of them which is annoying. I'll keep iterating on the design of this bit.

My high level conclusion so far is that there are two kinds of "contexts" when you’re exploring any text or collection of texts, and both matter equally. There’s original context/situated context which comes from the original source, and semantic context/reader context which is all the things that sentence/note is related to in the reader’s personal universe of ideas.

Whether I’m reading or taking notes, I want to quickly get a gist of key ideas and see them placed in both kind of contexts. So I think the interface challenge (in my view) boils down to: Can we have a reading/writing interface or notation that allows easily seeing excerpts from a large collection of texts/ideas in both the original/writer’s context and the reader/semantic context?

Science fiction/short story ideas

  • A budding human settlement on Mars, quickly maturing through shipments of industrial/manufacturing/agricultural equipment from Earth, gets cut off from the last few critical shipments for a self-sustained future due to a world war on the home world. The Martian settlement must now figure out how to ensure a sustainable future for themselves by either inventing and building the lost equipment (like semiconductor fabricators, radio communications equipment, Earth-based fertilizers, and rocket fuel) themselves, or navigating the complex task of acquiring what they need from a world mired in conflict and fog of war.
  • Humans experience reality and consciousness in a continuous way (at least, it seems this way to me). If the current path of development for powerful AI continues on its path, future AI agents and artificially conscious beings may experience reality as a discrete sequence of computations/inferences instead. How might a story narratively explore the difference between these two kinds of conscious entities and how they experience time and life?

Very excited for a time when products built on large language/image models become something more than thin boring UI wrappers around raw inference APIs. Why are you showing end users dials for top-k and temperature? They don't care!