I Converted Book I of The Sequences Into A Zoomer-Readable Format

post by dkirmani · 2022-11-10T02:59:04.236Z · LW · GW · 31 comments


  Predictably Wrong
  Fake Beliefs
  Noticing Confusion
  Mysterious Answers

If I (a 19 year old male) texted "www.readthesequences.com" to my roommate, the probable outcome is that he would skim the site for under a minute, text back something like "seems interesting, I'll def check it out sometime", and then proceed to never read another word. I have another friend, one that I would consider a smart guy. He would consistently rank above me in our high school's math team, and he scored in the 1500's (≥3SD) on his SATs. The same dude did not read a single book during the entirety of his high school career.[1]

Attention is one's scarcest resource [LW · GW], and actually reading something longer than a paragraph is a trivial inconvenience [LW · GW], especially for my generation.

What, then, does manage to hold the fickle eyeballs of zoomers like me? Well, TikTok, mostly. However, there is one (very popular) genre of TikTok video worth investigating. In this genre of video, a Reddit post is broken into sub-paragraph chunks of text, and these chunks are sequentially rendered onscreen while a text-to-speech program reads them to the user. The text is overlaid upon a background video, which is either gameplay from the mobile game Subway Surfers, or parkour footage from Minecraft. The background gameplay provides engaging novelty to the user's visual cortex, while the synthetic voice ensures that the user doesn't have to go through the hard work of translating symbols into sounds. Really, it's all quite hypnotizing.

The fact that these videos are often recommended by TikTok's algorithm implies that they are among the most-engaging videos that our civilization produces. Therefore, to reduce the effort-cost of reading the sequences, I gave the TikTok treatment to Book I ("Map and Territory") of Rationality: From AI to Zombies.

(Update: Circa 2023-02-09, all these links are dead. This was in response to an AWS alert notifying me that 85 gigabytes (or more) of data had been transferred out. I really shouldn't have used a public S3 bucket to serve video in the first place, as it exposed me to an unacceptable amount of risk in the form of a denial of wallet attack. I've got a second batch of videos in the works, which I intend to distribute via a more secure mechanism.)


Predictably Wrong

Fake Beliefs

Noticing Confusion

Mysterious Answers

Interlude: The Simple Truth

Do whatever you want with these videos. I may or may not convert the other 5 books of R:AZ, and I may or may not upload them to TikTok. If you want another work of text converted to video, please pitch it to me in the comments, or DM me.

  1. No, not even the books assigned in English class. He used SparkNotes. ↩︎


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Viliam · 2022-11-10T21:19:29.330Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This was weird. I am clearly not the target audience, but I guess the more options the better.

My impression is that, relative to the presentation format, the text is simply too complicated. If you optimize for people with short attention span, you should probably also make the sentences and paragraphs shorter. Maybe more repetition, or saying the same thing several different ways.

I wonder if you asked people at the end what it was about, if they could actually make a coherent answer, or just say something like "something about rationality... and Caesar... and why you should eat vegetables".

comment by trevor (TrevorWiesinger) · 2022-11-10T05:27:59.242Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think there's better ways to do this. Could you remove the little characters on the bottom and the switching side to side tracks? They're very distracting and seem more like the evil side of tiktok than the artistic side. I'm not willing to go into details about this on a public forum, but social media tends to recommend things that feel helpful but are actually quite destructive. I would not recommend trusting social media with your brain. The corporations behind it are generally not neutral and not your friend. If they could find a way to hypnotize people, they would do it, and they will definitely throw lots of money at the slightest possibilities at developing something that works even a little bit like that (e.g. complex attention manipulation). If you're going to do this, all the way, then social media trends are something you absolutely must be skeptical of. The evil that social media companies routinely default to is an unknown unknown for you; regardless of whether or not you read everything I was wiling to share here, it's so much worse.

This could plausibly work much better without content designed to divert your attention back and forth at consistent, specific times, such as videos of a minecraft rail that never ever changes direction or camera angle. I don't know if that will have other problems, because you're the expert here, not me. But I know that stimuli could take distracted attention back towards the payload, but it could also shove attention away too frequently.

Lastly, you might want to go with the Highlights of the Sequences [? · GW] since I'm worried that it won't work at all, and you should get maximal effect per hour if the rate of total failure is so high. You can also try taking quotes out of the CFAR handbook [? · GW], specifically from the Opening Session Tips and Advice [? · GW] which a lot of people benefit from rereading every day for a month. My plan is to distribute printed copies of the CFAR handbook as zines or stapled packets at events, but you're already taking a completely different angle.

I think that, if someone were to have a really brilliant idea that makes it super easy for anyone to learn rationality anywhere, anytime, then it would probably emerge from a pile of failed ideas such as the chasing game. This kind of thinking from this kind of person seems like the winning strategy here, even if the first shot wasn't it.

Replies from: dkirmani, FinalFormal2
comment by dkirmani · 2022-11-10T05:44:24.871Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for the feedback! I didn't consider the inherent jumpiness/grabbiness of Subway Surfers, but you're right, something more continuous is preferable. (edit: but isn't the point of the audio to allow your eyes to stray? hmm)

I will probably also take your advice wrt using the Highlights and CFAR handbook excerpts in lieu of the entire remainder of R:AZ.

Replies from: esben-kran
comment by Esben Kran (esben-kran) · 2022-11-10T14:50:00.863Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for making this, I think it's really great!

The idea of the attention-grabbing video footage is that you're not just competing between items on the screen, you're also competing with the videos that come before and after your video. Therefore, yours has to be visually engaging just for that zoomer (et al. [LW(p) · GW(p)]) dopamine rush. 

Subway Surfers is inherently pretty active and as you mention, the audio will help you here, though you might be able to find a better voice synthesizer that can be a bit more engaging (not sure if TikTok supplies this). So my counterpoint to Trevor1's is that we probably want to keep something like Subway Surfers in the background but that can of course be many things such as animated AI generated images or NASA videos of the space race. Who really knows - experimentation is king.

Replies from: dkirmani
comment by dkirmani · 2022-11-10T20:55:17.397Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


might be able to find a better voice synthesizer that can be a bit more engaging (not sure if TikTok supplies this)

Don't think I can do this that easily. I'm currently calling Amazon Polly, AWS' TTS service, from a python script I wrote to render these videos. Tiktok does supply an (imo) annoying-sounding female TTS voice, but that's off the table since I would have to enter all the text manually on my phone.

experimentation is king.

I could use Amazon's Mechanical Turk to run low-cost focus groups.

Replies from: Raphaël Lévy
comment by ersatz (Raphaël Lévy) · 2022-11-14T16:54:36.806Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You should probably use Google Neural2 voices which are far better.

comment by quanticle · 2022-11-10T09:13:28.790Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand the not-so-subtle anti-zoomer sentiment in this post.

If I (a 19 year old male) texted “www.readthesequences.com” to my roommate, the probable outcome is that he would skim the site for under a minute, text back something like “seems interesting, I’ll def check it out sometime”, and then proceed to never read another word.

That's a normal response. Your roommate is being polite. The Sequences are obviously very important to you, and you're clearly very enthusiastic about them, but they neither understand nor do they really care. To them, a recommendation to read the Sequences would seem about as relevant as someone recommending to me a book length treatment detailing the specifics of the 1972 Chicago Bears. For what it's worth, I would expect exactly the same response from my dad, if I sent him a link to The Sequences.

The same dude did not read a single book during the entirety of his high school career. No, not even the books assigned in English class. He used SparkNotes.

I fail to see how this is an indictment of your friend's character, or an indication that he is incapable of reading. More likely, he rationally viewed school as a day job, and optimized towards getting the grade that he wanted with a minimum of effort, in order to build slack [LW · GW] for other activities, such as performing well on the math team. It's a commendable attitude. I did much the same thing in high school, only I spent the additional time learning Perl.

I think what you're missing is that The Sequences are niche. It's not sufficient to be a smart person. You have to be a smart person, interested in meta-cognition, and interested in AI. That's not a very large intersection. Your experience is exactly what I'd expect if I mass-recommended The Sequences across my social circle, even though I'm a Millenial, and know many Boomers. It's not that Zoomers can't read (an accusation that older generations have been leveling against younger ones since time immemorial), it's that most people aren't really interested in The Sequences.

Replies from: dkirmani
comment by dkirmani · 2022-11-10T09:42:53.725Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The "anti-zoomer" sentiment is partially "anti-my-younger-self" sentiment. I, personally, had to expend a good deal of effort to improve my attention span, wean myself off of social media, and reclaim whole hours of my day. I'm frustrated because I know that more is possible.

I fail to see how this is an indictment of your friend's character, or an indication that he is incapable of reading.

That friend did, in fact, try multiple times to read books. He got distracted every time. He wanted to be the kind of guy that could finish books, but he couldn't. I used to be a lot more like he was. For the record, he has since read books (good ones, too).

More likely, he rationally viewed school as a day job, and optimized towards getting the grade that he wanted with a minimum of effort, in order to build slack for other activities, such as performing well on the math team.

Of course. We all did that. I do not identify with my academic performance (I dropped out of college). Also, we went to a boarding school, and as his former roommate, I can tell you that neither of us studied in our free time. He's just better at doing math than I am.

It's not that Zoomers can't read (an accusation that older generations have been leveling against younger ones since time immemorial)

No, this time really is different. I know a guy (not dumb either) who spends >7h a day on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. Some of us can't sit through movies. Never before in history has there been as strong an optimization pressure for eyeballs, and there is no demographic more subject to that pressure than mine.

Replies from: niplav, quanticle, quanticle, michal-basiura
comment by niplav · 2022-11-10T15:19:44.786Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Further evidence that I should write a factpost investigating whether attention spans have been declining.

Replies from: niplav
comment by niplav · 2023-09-09T11:41:55.714Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can deliver [LW · GW], it just takes a while.

comment by quanticle · 2022-11-10T21:44:00.498Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(creating a separate thread for this, because I think it's separate from my other reply)

That friend did, in fact, try multiple times to read books. He got distracted every time. He wanted to be the kind of guy that could finish books, but he couldn’t.

You've described the problem exactly. Your friend didn't have a clear reason to read books. He just had this vague notion that reading books was "good". That "smart people" read lots of books. Why? Who knows, they just do.

I read a lot. But I have never read just for the sake of reading. All of my reading has a purpose, whether it be to learn more about a particular period of history, improve my programming skills, or maybe just because I think something is interesting, and worth learning more about. I've always been confused by people who have, "Read X books in a year," as a New Year's resolution. It makes about as much sense to me as, "Eat X foods".

comment by quanticle · 2022-11-10T10:43:53.450Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know a guy (not dumb either) who spends >7h a day on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube.

When I went to college, I knew a guy who spent >7 hours per day playing World of Warcraft. He ended up dropping out. My dad knows multiple people who failed out of IIT because they spent too much time playing bridge (the card game).

Every generation has its anecdotes about smart people who got nothing done because they were too interested in trivialities.

comment by β-redex (GregK) · 2022-11-10T14:36:31.704Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As others said here kudos for the effort, but this iteration seems horrible to me.

When I was reading the Sequences I often had to go back and reread a sentence/paragraph/even page to fully understand everything. I also had to stop sometimes to really deeply think about the ideas (or just appreciate their beauty). I feel the text has low redundancy and assumes that you can go back and reread if you missed something (would be strange if it didn't), and is not directly suitable for a video format.

I tried to watch some of the clips, but it is just waay too fast for me.

I am afraid that much greater effort is required to turn material like this into a video format, like what Rational Animations is doing.

comment by Raemon · 2022-11-10T21:36:25.144Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay I super bounced off the first one, but upon reflection I think this is because "What do we mean by 'rationality'" is just actually not a very good post. I clicked on "feeling rational" and then found myself lulled into a weird trance I had to shake myself out of.

comment by Tomás B. (Bjartur Tómas) · 2022-11-10T15:09:09.647Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Though slightly horrified about what this implies about zoomer attention spans, this seems to have positive expected value. Thanks for putting in all the effort!

comment by alicia · 2022-11-20T20:18:33.307Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I (20F) just want to say, thanks for doing this. 

I don't think this would do well if uploaded onto TikTok, primarily because the sequences are quite dense and require a lot of attention anyway, so they wouldn't capture the attention of people looking for quick/easy entertainment. If I'm not interested in something in the first few seconds, I usually keep scrolling, as there are always more entertaining things to be found that don't require as much of my attention. 

That being said, I think these are great. I don't think you'd be able to convince someone to read the sequences purely by exposing them to this format, however, I think for people who already want to read them (myself included) it makes the task a hell of a lot easier. It is worth mentioning that I have ADHD, and I have been wanting to read the sequences for a while now but cannot find the motivation to do so, as they require extended effort and attention. This way, the content doesn't change, so it's still a lot of information to digest but, I find it far easier to concentrate and digest the information when it is in this format. Perhaps this is a familiarity thing, or the fact that a few things are going on at once (which layers on dopamine enough for me to keep watching). I think it also helps to have the posts broken down into small chunks, it seems less overwhelming this way, and the combination of text and speech is also incredibly helpful for me. 

A lot of people have been very quick to criticise you for this, and that's probably because a lot of people on LessWrong are not part of the "TikTok" generation, and have a healthier relationship with dopamine, but I want to point out that is could actually be very helpful to some people. Certainly, in my case, I have never been able to sit down and read the sequences, but since coming across this post, I have sat through and listened to quite a few (and have ENJOYED doing so). So, thank you! :)

comment by Nathan Nguyen (nathan-nguyen) · 2022-11-11T04:25:19.003Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The popularity of TTS might be due to the fact that it’s relatively low cost to produce. But given that there’s already real-person audio narration of the sequences, it might be worth adding that in instead and seeing if that’s more engaging

comment by Hamp (Hampton Moseley) · 2022-11-10T04:59:07.652Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

wow that's really neat o.o are you going to post these to social media?

comment by Coafos (CoafOS) · 2022-11-11T22:19:36.906Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

ITT: Millenials lamenting about the decadence of youth :)

On a more serious note, awesome.

I like reading text, prefer transcripts of podcasts to the actual audio (I find it boring, even when sped up), and spend too much time looking at memes on reddit and facebook. Sometimes I yell at clouds.

Somehow, videos are missing from my media consumption. I attribute it to me using 3rd party apps for everything. These apps create a barrier in the endless flow, and I have to choose content more intentionally.

I started watching the videos, and holy shoes, you found the right buttons. If your vids any indication of what's going on on these platforms, I'll update towards tiktok being actively harmful for cognition. (Not a critique to you; but the weapons you showed are symmetric and powerful, so it's possible there's enemy action there.) I can imagine myself getting addicted to those, I guess I got lucky.

All in all, I think it's a good project because I believe rational memes are good. If there's a fentanyl crisis, and you're selling heroin, then it's better to have rats on heroin.

comment by Ruby · 2022-11-22T02:42:35.666Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is so neat! I (32M) initially didn't look at this post (my brain had auto-completed it to "I made an epub" or something), but I'm familiar with this format and find the whole thing very cute. (I don't know how many people I expect to watch these, but I'm amused the exist. Kudos.)

I only watched one but would go for Minecraft or whatever the game with the cars is, less sudden and jerky movement.

comment by Argi · 2022-11-11T00:40:58.924Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A thought as a fellow 19-year-old male: I feel like this format leads to a lower quality understanding of the text as opposed to reading it, a factor to the prevalence of text over footage is the interestingness of the text itself, combined with the footage for background. It makes it much easier to just tune out the whole thing and not pay attention. I personally haven't ever used tiktok so I'm not familiar with the nature of the platform, but I could see this format being useful as an entry, but less useful for actual comprehension of the topics contained. 

However this may just be my lack of experience with audiobooks talking, I have a friend who almost exclusively listens to books, he explained to me that you get a lot better the more you read(?) that way, so it could just be that.

comment by Raemon · 2022-11-10T20:12:42.748Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure whether this general format works (I think the posts aren't actually optimized for reading in this format well). But, one straightforward improvement would be to replace the speech-to-text with the Rationality A-Z podcast audio. 

Replies from: dkirmani
comment by dkirmani · 2022-11-10T20:32:34.770Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

True, but then I have to time the text-transitions manually.

comment by Mordecai Weynberg (mordecai-weynberg) · 2023-02-26T00:25:02.742Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

why not put it on TickTock

comment by Legionnaire · 2023-02-09T21:02:13.262Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I recommend making the text on screen at least a little larger. That is a common useful trope in infotainment that works well.

comment by wizzeh · 2023-02-09T06:28:01.525Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

if this is for zoomers you need to use the cheery tiktok lady voice. shes hypnotic.

comment by FinalFormal2 · 2022-11-10T19:58:15.137Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tts should be sped up a fair bit

Replies from: FinalFormal2
comment by FinalFormal2 · 2022-11-10T20:01:43.407Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That and raise the production quality and switch subway surfers out for something else like the Minecraft you mentioned. TikTok should have the framework to make these changes.

Replies from: dkirmani
comment by dkirmani · 2022-11-10T21:00:14.185Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

TikTok isn't doing any work here, I compile the text to mp4 using a script I wrote.

comment by Amín Romero (amin-romero) · 2023-02-09T19:38:11.626Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let's assume this medium is effective. Then I really recommend that you make sure the character running in the background plays well. It's distracting when it makes really dumb mistakes and flow is broken.

comment by JacobW38 (JacobW) · 2022-11-12T05:56:50.380Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I highly recommend following Rational Animations on Youtube for this sort of general purpose. I'd describe their format as "LW meets Kurzgesagt", the latter which I already found highly engaging. They don't post new videos that often, but their stuff is excellent, even more so recently, and definitely triggers my dopamine circuits in a way that rationality content generally struggles to satisfy. Imo, it's perfect introductory material to anyone new on LW to get familiar with its ideology in a way that makes learning easy and fun.

(Not affiliated with RA in any way, just a casual enjoyer of chonky shibes)