Discover more from Dean's List
Margin Muse, One Thing per day, Baby Logs
In today’s logloglog;
I’m building an AI-powered text editor.
The insane power of picking One Thing.
My dad logged the first 5 years of my life.
But first, some links On Writing I published recently.
🔗 Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
Writing lessons from Fat Joe, my baseball coach.
🔗 DEVO & Deconstructing Covers
Permission to make weird remixes.
🔗 Catch the Fish or Chase the Whale?
Advice for tackling big projects.
And also, a quick Essay Flashback:
Burn Down the Stage — This essay looks at the influence of American Idol on social media. No matter how different each platform might seem, each is centered around a stage, with the right to be famous, and the duty to vote. It leads to a Lurker < > Idol dynamic, with a ratio of 99:1. Our goal should be to eliminate stage fright and increase posting rates. We need a “middle context,” something between the stage and DM. Imagine being able to share honest and unrestricted thoughts, but each one is somehow delivered to only the “right” people. We could use our algorithms to connect instead of addict. We need better online social circles, not a bigger spectacle. Check it out.
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I’m building an AI-powered text editor.
How is a 21st century writer different from writers of the past? Probably, technology. Since GPT-4 came out in March, there’s been a shared sense that the rules of the game are about to radically change. I’m less excited about a babbling chatbot juicing out free essays, and way more excited about AI teaching me to code my own writing tools.
I’ve wanted to “learn to code” for over a decade. I know the basics (variables, functions, loops, events) through a visual syntax in Unreal Engine, but I’ve never been able to whip together an idea into a useful app. I’d always get stuck half way through a 40 hour Udemy course to learn the abstract foundations. Now, you speak detailed English into a chatbot and it spits out a broken app in 45 seconds. Through fixing feature by feature, I’ve been learning Python and Typescript.
With patience, ChatGPT, and the advice of a close friend who builds software professionally, I’m able to close the gap between an idea in my imagination and functioning code. After 3 months of fiddling, I finally have something worth sharing.
Remember Margin Matchmaker? I built it.
I strung together a crude text editor that has an AI-powered “second brain” living in the margin. It’s different from Evernote (or whatever app you use or don’t use) in two big ways: it’s semanticand automatic. Meaning, as you write an essay, it automatically pulls notes based on each sentence you write.
Writers can benefit from AI without having it write their sentences for them.
Here’s a demo of what I now call “Margin Muse” (open in full screen on desktop):
This changes how I think about my note-taking system. It’s not about organizing anymore, but capturing.
There’s no longer a need to tag, link, and groom notes. Now it’s about stockpiling sources that might be relevant to your writing. You don’t want to scrape the whole Internet, but you’ll want your own curated “hyper library,” a personal but unorganized “epiphany swamp” of things you care about.
This prototype only has 1.5 months of logs, or around 10,000 words in it. My next step is to get all my logs and essays in there, which would bring it to 300,000 words. At this scale, I’ll need to improve the UI and add a note-sorting algorithm. And once those foundations are in place, it’s a “scrape race.”
Maybe I’ll make this available as an app in the future, but for now my goals are: 1) getting good at coding, and 2) augmenting my writing. I don’t want to start a software company and write on the side as a hobby. I want to be a professional writer and editor that uses software to accelerate my own practice.
AI is changing the paradigm in how software gets made. GPT-4 is like a 3D printer of software. When users are empowered to make their own tools, they can design their own 1 of 1 applications.
Here’s a log from July on this:
July 19th, 2023 6:56 pm (ET) —
Consumer software manifests itself through economic constraints. I remember when Evernote cut back features to make it “simple” and accessible. The bottom line for growing software companies is that they need to onboard hoards of new users to stay alive. This means the feature set is optimized for people in their first 60 seconds in the app. This might be terrible for the power user who is 30 hours into the app.
Compare this to 3DS Max, a computer graphics app by Autodesk, with little competition or alternatives. The learning curve is huge, and the average user is 6 years deep. Beginners are tremendously overwhelmed, but the power users are super-human. The complex interfaces are extensions of their nervous systems.
If AI & no-code reach new levels of accessibility, this might enable an average person without coding experience to design their own “power tools,” features and interfaces, custom tailored to their own minds and needs, that gradually evolve over the course of their whole life.
The insane power of picking one thing.
For the last 6 weeks I was stuck on finishing this MVP of Margin Muse. I wasn’t prioritizing it, and so I squeezed it in between other tasks, giving up when I got blocked after an hour. But my wife went to the Poconos for a Bachelorette party last Saturday and I finished the whole thing in 6 hours by 2pm.
This happened because on Saturday I had only one goal: Margin Muse.
I’ve been intrigued by “the one thing” philosophy for 2 years, but I only ever considered it at the most macro scale. Some companies (Basecamp?) will only let each employee cover one project per quarter so they don’t get distracted, and so accountability is clear. In 2021, I shed some stale dreams around architecture, songwriting, and virtual reality so I could focus on one career as a writer.
But I never considered how the philosophy applies to a day’s work.
August 19th, 2023 2:25 pm (ET) —
When I have clarity on what to focus on, everything seems to magically happen. A problem will haunt me for weeks because I never commit to it, but if I just say "this is my sole focus for today," weeks worth of stress dissolves. Less micro-management and more bold decisions. Otherwise you get stuck in the valley of despair, with 5-10 things lingering, and you feel stuck and unaccomplished. Your attention is a beam. Use it. The wins compound and you feel unstoppable.
Now I start each day with one non-negotiable thing I have to finish. I have permission to ignore almost everything else until it’s done. There’s no system needed. Just a bold decision.
In the afternoons I have the opposite strategy. I have a specific 27-point checklist, that I (try to) run every day, and I even use a stopwatch to measure how long each item takes. The whole list gets done in under 60 minutes. By limiting this extremely-optimized hyper-diligent “checklist consciousness” to one hour every day, I can get away with tangents and rabbit holes with the rest of my time. The checklist is a way to “get centered,” so the next morning I can plunge into the next one thing without worrying about all the loose ends.
My dad logged the first 5 years of my life.
My brother just had a baby, and he’s experiencing a bunch of “firsts,” like the first laugh (triggered by snoring). This got my dad to remember he logged the first few years of our lives. He sent over a text file through WhatsApp. These aren’t basic milestones. I have 8,500 words of one-line logs that cover my first 5 years. They’re perfectly specific, triggering memories and connecting dots from my past.
Imagine 883 lines like this:
90,10,13, Michael Growls when he Plays with String & Gets Frustrated
91,07,06, Solved Compuserve Problem by Reseting Computer
91,08,28, Tried to Brush the Teeth of a Neighborhood Cat
91,11,09, Likes to get dizzy & fall down
92,03,15, Knows how to Eject Tape from VCR
92,05,08, Michael Scared of Thunder, Says I'm Sorry When He Hears It
93,07,31, Knows over 60 of the 84 dinosaurs in his book
93,08,01, Steered Golf Cart in Circles while Stephen Pushed Gas Pedal
93,11,22, All Concerned that Priest told him Jesus is in his Heart
94,09,20, Asks Daddy; when he gets old will he die?
I fed the complete Baby Logs into AI and started asking it questions (I used Claude 2 for its larger context window). I asked it to come to conclusions about my personality, my parents, and eventually I asked it to predict the career that this child from the logs would grow into.
Computer programmer/developer - The early interest and aptitude with technology stands out, and his problem solving and logical thinking align well with programming.
Teacher - His verbal skills, empathy, imagination, and ability to relate to children make a strong case for a teaching career. He seems to thrive working with younger kids.
Have you tried coding with AI? What would you build first?
What are your pain points in the writing process?
What annoys you about text editors?
What prevents you from committing to a single thing at a time?
What’s your most treasured artifact from childhood?
Semantic: We’re used to searching our notes through “keywords.” If you type “heaven” in a search bar, it will surface any note that has “heaven” in it. But with semantic search, you surface notes based on meaning and association. Even though I don’t mention “heaven” in my notes, when I search it in Margin Muse, it brings up notes that contain the words “theology,” “death,” “afterlife,” “time dilation", “consciousness,” “existence,” “hypnagogia,” and “horizon.”
Automatic: Currently, if you want to find an old note, you have to stop writing, find a search bar, and cycle through keywords until you find the note you want. It’s a flow-breaker. Margin Muse is a text editor where every sentence also functions as a search query. Based on the words in your sentence, it will populate your margins with your most relevant notes.
In addition to having my own writing baked into the margins, I can add anyone’s Substack, all of someone’s Tweets, eBooks, the Bible, full discographies, the full audio transcripts of Terence McKenna, 20 years of Marginal Revolution. How granular can we go? I wrote a script that scrapes Wikipedia entries of every word in an essay. That is probably overkill. But through trial and error, I’ll see what’s actually useful to have as I’m constructing prose.
90,12,16, Yiayia Helen Put Ouzo on Michael's gums because they hurt
91,11,09, Hits computer & says "no nani!" to wake Mickey Mouse up
92,01,31, Sings to Jeopardy Song. Sounds Like Groaning
92,01,31, Bops Up & Down While Dot Matrix Printer Prints
92,06,22, Still Dislikes Nicole and The Oscar Car She Brought Him
92,07,05, Says "Gubagoo" When Upset or Frustrated or Anxious
92,12,06, At his Desk, Michael Says "I'm Working", "Don't Bother Me”
93,11,14, Whenever hurt or sad, Says "Nothing will make me feel better"
93,11,20, Doesn't want to Be Big Man Because He Doesn't Want a Beard
93,12,01, Knows how to tell Knock Knock Jokes (But they make no sense)