Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Penguicon & Blook

10 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2008 05:32PM

One million cumulative daily visits!  Woot n' stuff.  Also we're in the top 5,000 of all blogs on Technorati, and one of the top 10 econblogs by Technorati rank.

Seems like a good time to mention that I'll be appearing at Penguicon, a combination open-source/science-fiction convention in Troy, MI, Apr 18-20, as a Nifty.  I'll be doing an intro to Bayesian reasoning that you probably don't need if you're reading this, possibly a panel on the Virtues of a Rationalist, some stuff on human intelligence upgrades, and definitely "The Ethics of Ending the World" with Aaron Diaz (Dresden Codak).

After the jump, you can see some proposed cover art for the blook.

The_book_2

For the benefit of the humor impaired:  Yes, this is a joke.  Erin, my girlfriend, Photoshopped this when she heard I was planning to do a book.

This is all taking longer than I expected - as expected - but I do think I'm getting there.


My current serious strategy for the blook is as follows:

  1. Finish all the important serial material on rationality - the posts that have to be done in month-long sequences.  That's probably at least another two months.
  2. Maybe spend another month or two doing large transhumanist sequences, either on the Singularity Institute blog (currently fairly defunct) or here on Overcoming Bias if the readers really want that.  My self-imposed deadline here is August 2008.
  3. Switch to writing shorter posts on topics that can be considered independently given the already-written background material - maybe cut back to a Sat-Sun-Tue-Thu schedule.  Don't worry, this won't happen anytime soon.
  4. On days when I don't post: spend my time compiling collections of related Overcoming Bias posts into medium-sized ebooks of 50 pages / 20,000 words or thereabouts, broken up into short blog-post-sized sections for easy reading.  (This is good because it can be done incrementally, and I tend to bog down when I try to do anything book-sized all at once.)  Leave a comment if you have any suggestions on ebook-writing software or ways to get the book design done cheaply.
  5. Publish the ebooks incrementally on Wowio, as a compromise between "information wants to be free" and "authors want to eat".  (Email me if you happen to work at/with Wowio, because I'm interested in testing the waters on this sometime soon.)  Publish the ebooks with a cheap nominal charge for readers outside the US, since Wowio doesn't work outside the US yet.
  6. Produce a giant expensive 500-page hardcover dead-tree compendium of all the ebooks at Lulu or somewhere similar.
  7. Once all the fully detailed material exists somewhere and I can summarize it with a clean conscience: pick the easiest and most favorably received topics for a short, popular book; produce an outline and a couple of starting chapters; and begin looking for an agent who believes that the book can be a New York Times bestseller, to find a publisher who believes that the book can be a bestseller and who'll invest a corresponding amount marketing it.

If you've got more experience in the publishing industry and you see some reason that any of this won't work, i.e., "No one will talk to you if you've ever done anything with Wowio or Lulu" or "Today's readers don't want short popular books, they want 500-page tomes" or something like that, please email me or comment.

Comments (34)

Sort By: Old
Comment author: LG 13 March 2008 06:42:15PM 1 point [-]

My wife is an author with an MFA in Creative Writing, and advanced degrees in math, who has published both fiction and math textbooks, so I vicariously know a lot about publishing. The potential problem that exists with your otherwise reasonable plan is that many (all?) publishers will balk at pre published material. You're talking about material that's here, in ebooks, and on lulu, before it ever passes over the publisher's desk -- that could be a big problem, you need to look into it.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2008 06:52:21PM 0 points [-]

I was planning a nigh-complete rewrite for the book - less than 50% previously published sentences, say. Would it be a problem if the ideas, but not sentences, all exist elsewhere?

Comment author: jonvon 13 March 2008 07:23:37PM 1 point [-]

hahahahahahahaha

that is AWESOME. your girlfriend rocks.

i think that you've built quite an audience here. i wouldn't normally be curious about a book like that, but in your case i'll be VERY interested to see what you come up with. i'd think the traffic you guys get here would be a big plus for any publisher, but what do i know? i'm just a guy planning to buy your book.

the blog/blook is great, but i have to admit many times i wish i had it in a more accessible format, like the small "for popular press" kind of book you mention. something i can ruminate over. i'm planning to work through as much as i can and teach my daughter as much as i am able. i think about that almost every time i come here. also, hoping that you definitely include the material on Orwell and Belief in Belief. those two series stand out for me, and probably my all time fave from around that time period, the post you did titled explain/worship/ignore, i have that one bookmarked.

Comment author: burger_flipper2 13 March 2008 07:29:59PM 1 point [-]

I can point you to an example where a book found a real publisher, because it did fairly well on Lulu and was written by someone with an internet following:

http://www.amazon.com/Seagalogy-Study-Ass-Kicking-Steven-Seagal/dp/1845769279/ref=pd_bbs_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1205436229&sr=8-1

All he had to do was pull the Lulu edition. I would think the overlap between your 500 page technical work and a popular book wouldn't be much greater than that between Freakonomics and Levitt's journal articles, and I don't think he lost too many sales because people were running to their libraries to access NBER.

Comment author: LG 13 March 2008 07:34:57PM 0 points [-]

I'm guessing that merely having written similar material will not stop you from publishing, but it seems like a grey area and I am not an expert. I'd ask an agent or a publisher directly about the whole situation, and I'd do it sooner rather than later, because I'd hate to see any effort wasted.

Comment author: Ben_Jones 13 March 2008 08:15:23PM 4 points [-]

There aren't many things I'd Go To The Shop And Pay Money For these days - even fewer that I'd pay money for having already read 50%. I'd say The Book Of Eliezer is probably one of those things though.

My two pennies: people don't go out and buy books on probability theory and Bayesian rationality for some light reading on the way to work. They want to get stuck in to something with some depth. If you're thinking of the past month's series as 'a chapter' (and "Rubes and Bleggs" would make a fine chapter), then you don't need many chapters for a substantial piece of writing. Have you read Hofstadter's prologue to the more recent editions of GEB? He started off trying to write a short piece about Godel. See where it takes you.

Comment author: PK 13 March 2008 08:32:58PM 2 points [-]

Eliezer, do you have a rough plan for when you will start programming an AI?

Comment author: Kip_Werking 13 March 2008 09:56:55PM 0 points [-]

I died laughing.

Comment author: Ulrik2 13 March 2008 10:14:42PM 0 points [-]

In Re #4/Ebook writing software: If I were to write an ebook with a dash of mathematics, I would most definitely go with LaTeX with Peter Wilson's Memoir document class. As a starting point, go look at the extensive manual for Memoir (http://tinyurl.com/3ddbb6), which apart from dealing with the particulars of the software also has an extensive introductory chapter on book design, including a section on ebook design.

I don't know what blogging software you use, but if it's WordPress, then there's a tool that might (I haven't tried it myself) get you going very fast: WPTeX (http://xhtml-css.com/wptex/index.html).

Comment author: Dave_Orr 13 March 2008 10:51:38PM 0 points [-]

I would indeed like the hear about transhumanism here rather than at a defunct blog, please.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 13 March 2008 11:01:16PM 1 point [-]

I'd rather have it at the SIAI blog, or a completely new blog, to avoid connections between Bayesianity and a perceived fringe ideology.

Comment author: Raphael 13 March 2008 11:36:28PM 0 points [-]

I would certainly appreciate the transhumanist posts. There is some high-quality transhumanist stuff online but more on message boards than in the form of coherent articles. So I think articles would be very worthwhile. (Also, some of the message board stuff has become quite dated).

Comment author: anonymous4 13 March 2008 11:39:04PM 0 points [-]

Yes!! That is hilarious .... you should use that as the real cover

Comment author: Tom_McCabe2 14 March 2008 12:49:22AM 0 points [-]

What are your hopes for this book? Pretty much everyone involved with SIAI already knows about your Overcoming Bias posts. It seems like the primary purchasing demographic for your book will be 1), people who already read your OB posts, 2), people who know about OB but don't take the time to understand it, and 3), people who aren't that intelligent or interested in transhumanism (by sheer force of numbers). The first group, of course, will already have heard about most of your ideas. The second group isn't likely to understand any more than they did the first time (it's easier to read 200 three-page blog posts than one 600-page book). People in the third group, although they may improve their conception of rationality, aren't likely to help save the world. What are your thoughts?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 March 2008 03:06:26AM 6 points [-]

Re: Tom McCabe:

...

Way to dismiss the rest of the human species out of hand. It's people like you 'wot cause evaporative cooling. Nice little ingroup vibe there, sure to P.O. everyone who isn't already in the cult.

But since you ask, the obvious ulterior motive is that seven years after the book's publication, I can hire researchers who read the popular book as grad students, went on to read the massive tome, and then read a few dozen technical math books while refining their practice of rationality until they became ready to think about FAI without their head exploding; funded by hedge-fund traders who read the popular book as undergrads, went on to read the massive tome, and then read semipopular cognitive psych books while refining their practice of rationality until they were ready to trade without their head exploding.

The best time to plant a tree is thirty years ago; the second best time is now. Most of SIAI's human intake today is from people who read stuff I wrote ten years ago. But the stuff I wrote ten years ago is garbage by my present standards. Going back and doing it over is a huge pain in the neck, but it has to be done, and the sooner the better, because those seeds will take time to ripen. Nobody but nobody becomes a high-level rationalist without practicing for years - starting after they get onto basically the right track.

Comment author: Anna4 14 March 2008 03:38:17AM 0 points [-]

As to whether today's readers want a 500 page tomb:

I haven't done a study, and I'm sure there are other examples. But the two books I can think of that drew large numbers of excellent students to do research with the authors are Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach" and Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind". Both are surprisingly difficult to read.

Comment author: moo 14 March 2008 03:52:57AM 0 points [-]

I'd buy a hard copy book as soon as it was released. This blog has probably done more to change the way I think about the world than any other single source. Second in line would probably be Dennett. Your writings have already inspired me to go into philosophy(and hopefully avoid the traps that snared so many in that field).

The cover art is very funny - it'd also convey the idea of [a speaker in a clown suit speaking in mystic tones can be conveying truthful and useful information while the serious guy is a fool/liar]

However, it might get the book misplaced in the shops and possibly ignored by psuedo skeptical types or people that judge a book by its cover(although I think that is a useful heuristic).

Comment author: Michael_G.R. 14 March 2008 04:00:26AM 0 points [-]

"I was planning a nigh-complete rewrite for the book - less than 50% previously published sentences, say. Would it be a problem if the ideas, but not sentences, all exist elsewhere?"

You might need to remove some posts from the net if you decide to use them as is in the book, but if it is all modified, there shouldn't be a problem AFAIK.

Ideas can't be copyrighted, and you wouldn't be the first person to turn blog material into dead tree.

Comment author: Michael_G.R. 14 March 2008 04:18:58AM 2 points [-]

I'd definitely like to have that 500 pages book in my library as reference, and give the shorter popular book as gift to friends (or my future kids?).

Only a small subset of the small group (relatively) of people who have read these blog posts as they were published will use them as reference later. Almost nobody (relatively) will be rediscovering them in a few years. That's simply the nature of blogging. Who's reading 3 years old BoingBoing posts right now?

I'm currently reading "Godel, Escher, Bach", and from what I've read here, I think that Eliezer's book could become something like that. Maybe not a Pulitzer (but who knows?), but certainly something special that changes the way people think.

Comment author: Dojan 29 November 2011 04:15:24PM *  1 point [-]

Almost nobody (relatively) will be rediscovering them in a few years. That's simply the nature of blogging. Who's reading 3 years Oldsberg BoingBoing posts right now?

I dont know, but I am reading this.

I would be very carefull before dismissing older blogposts and forumthreads; how often isn't that the critical help found in some Google search?

Comment author: Kenny 17 February 2013 01:41:47AM 3 points [-]

I'm re-reading this post now! From the future!

Comment author: wedrifid 19 February 2013 06:12:28AM 0 points [-]

I'm re-reading this post now! From the future!

Now I'm rereading this from the future and thinking "Sorry Michael, Vaporware!"

Comment author: anonymous4 14 March 2008 05:46:01AM 0 points [-]

Tom McCabe:

Even if the book was just a re-hash of the blog posts that are readily available, I'd buy it anyway, because

a) I'd prefer to read and re-read a book then to look at old blog posts on my monitor

and

b) I could loan it to many friends of mind who would enjoy the book but would never bother to look at links to blog posts that I might send them.

Comment author: Chris_Hallquist 14 March 2008 08:04:54AM 0 points [-]

As a big fan of yours, I have to say I'm mainly excited about the condensed version. I don't see the point in buying something that's already available on the internet. Something with all the key ideas distilled down and integrated more deeply than you would blog posts--that, though, could be useful even to someone who's read all your posts and wants the big picture, and it means something I can recommend to family and watch climb the bestseller lists (hopefully!) The self-published book would only be useful for boosting your sales pitch to publishers, but won't work well even for that if too many people feel as I do. If you're worried about your credentials for making a pitch to publishers, I recommend trying to publish more short printed pieces (magazine/journal articles, book chapters, etc.) But I may be the exception in my thinking on this.

Comment author: BillK 14 March 2008 01:58:19PM 1 point [-]

What is the target market for your 'best-seller'?

In some sectors relatively few sales can put the book in the top ten for that sector.

I can't see this book at the sales level of the Da Vinci Code, for example, and I don't see Hollywood fighting over the movie rights. ;)

Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time' is #3,081 in Books BUT- #1 in Books > Science > Astronomy > Cosmology #1 in Books > Science > Physics > Cosmology #1 in Books > Science > Astronomy > Universe

So - Define the category you are writing for.

Then try some test marketing to samples of that target readership who haven't already read your writing here and elsewhere.

The big reason for this is that you might get a very different reaction from sample marketing than the reaction you get from the few hundred enthusiasts who read you here. The results you get will guide you in constructing the book to suit your intended market. There is a difference between writing just what you want to write and producing a product that people want to buy.

BillK

Comment author: Tom_McCabe2 14 March 2008 05:05:04PM 0 points [-]

"Way to dismiss the rest of the human species out of hand. It's people like you 'wot cause evaporative cooling. Nice little ingroup vibe there, sure to P.O. everyone who isn't already in the cult."

Forgive me for having the audacity to state the obvious out loud. We know from a huge number of precedents that, even if SIAI is wildly successful, 99% of the human species *isn't going to help*. 99% of America doesn't involve itself in something as popular and easily understood as national politics; what chance does transhumanism have? This is true regardless of how many people it P.O.'s.

Consider a book series as popular and well-written as the Feynman Lectures on Physics. How many people became physicists because they read Feynman's lectures? The books were certainly read by a large number of physicists, but I doubt you would have seen any major decrease in the number of professional physicists had Feynman never lived. A lot of people can point to one or two books they read that first got them involved in whatever field they studied, but so far as I know, there's no one, single book that got a lot of young people into any specific career. The closest things I can think of are TV dramas like CSI and ER, and they have millions of viewers nationwide.

"I can hire researchers who read the popular book as grad students, went on to read the massive tome, and then read a few dozen technical math books while refining their practice of rationality until they became ready to think about FAI without their head exploding"

This is a legitimate strategy, but again, this demographic is going to be *much smaller* than the total number of people who buy the book. You must know this. People don't read dozens of additional books or study rationality intensively unless they have some compelling reason to- you mention this yourself (http://lesswrong.com/lw/nb/something_to_protect/). The two compelling reasons you mentioned, transhumanism and making millions, aren't going to attract a lot of people (the first due to future shock and sparsity in the memepool, the second due to skepticism over get-rich-quick schemes).

"Most of SIAI's human intake today is from people who read stuff I wrote ten years ago."

Most of the stuff you wrote ten years ago is on transhumanism, which *does* give people a compelling reason to stay involved.

"Even if the book was just a re-hash of the blog posts that are readily available, I'd buy it anyway"

I was talking about the ratio of people who help save the world/people who read the book, not the absolute number of people who read the book (which will probably be rather large).

"Almost nobody (relatively) will be rediscovering them in a few years. That's simply the nature of blogging. Who's reading 3 years old BoingBoing posts right now?"

This is a very good point.

Comment author: Dojan 29 November 2011 04:40:19PM 0 points [-]

I agree with you that it is a hard problem to make the rest of humanity see and care about these things, to which I say: All the more reason to try!

That it's no point becouse it'll probably not change the world all that much anyway, strikes me as a close-to fully general counterargument.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 14 March 2008 05:48:10PM 1 point [-]

First, BWAHAHAHA at the cover. :) (Hee hee, if you can, maybe you ought publish the book twice over. Both versions identical, but one with that cover instead of a "reasonable" one. See what happens, which sells better...)

Second, didn't even know there was a con coming up (very) near here. Maybe will go if not way too late to sign up.

Comment author: Michael_G.R. 14 March 2008 05:58:09PM 0 points [-]

""Almost nobody (relatively) will be rediscovering them in a few years. That's simply the nature of blogging. Who's reading 3 years old BoingBoing posts right now?""

"This is a very good point."

I think it would be a waste, and very sad, if Eliezer had spent over a year writing enough high-quality material for a book and that material just stayed buried in Overcoming Bias' archives, nearly forgotten in a matter of years.

For a little more effort, he can produce books that more chances of making a difference.

Tom, you say that people who are "helping" are a small group. That is true. But I don't believe that everybody who could be convinced, who could help is already on board. Simply think about yourself; you are in now, but at some point in your life you weren't. Something must've lit the fire. Imagine if back then you had seen an interesting review of Elizer's book on Amazon and decided to check it out. I bet that would have been a great introduction.

Since that group of people is small, it means that it only takes a small number of additional people to make a relatively big difference. And besides, not everybody who's already on board (however you define that) is thinking as clearly as Eliezer about these things. Many could learn from his book, I'm sure, and that could increase the quality of their contribution.

Another argument is that there is a chance (probably low) that the book(s) could sell a lot more than we can expect right now. Not giving that a shot when the book is almost already written would be a wasted opportunity, IMHO.

Comment author: Tom_McCabe2 14 March 2008 07:06:49PM 0 points [-]

"I think it would be a waste, and very sad, if Eliezer had spent over a year writing enough high-quality material for a book and that material just stayed buried in Overcoming Bias' archives, nearly forgotten in a matter of years. For a little more effort, he can produce books that more chances of making a difference."

I agree, but Eli has already announced his intentions to rewrite most of the material, which will require a great deal of work.

"But I don't believe that everybody who could be convinced, who could help is already on board."

I certainly agree; it's a question of which recruiting approach is the most viable. Publishing this kind of a book is essentially a shotgun approach; you hit a whole bunch of people with rational ideas and hope that a few of them stick. I was pointing out that 1), it *is* a shotgun approach, and 2), the spread of a dead-tree version is so wide that it's unlikely to hit very many people.

"Imagine if back then you had seen an interesting review of Elizer's book on Amazon and decided to check it out. I bet that would have been a great introduction."

If Eli had published a book on rationalism back in 2003, it would currently be collecting dust on my bookshelf along with all the other books I've read several times over. It probably wouldn't have drawn me into transhumanism.

"Many could learn from his book, I'm sure, and that could increase the quality of their contribution."

The blog posts, so far as I can tell, are doing as well a job of teaching their readers as can reasonably be expected. We *will* need to prepare something for the next generation, but that's caused by the nature of blogging, not some deficiency in Eli's postings.

Comment author: Michael_G.R. 14 March 2008 08:45:49PM 0 points [-]

"I agree, but Eli has already announced his intentions to rewrite most of the material, which will require a great deal of work."

Indeed, but less than coming up with it in the first place, and the total return on investment will likely be much higher.

f.ex., if for 1000 hours of work he got 5,000 regular readers here, for 1300 hours of work he might be able to get 100,000+ (not all at once, but over a few years) with relatively little overlap between both groups.

"Publishing this kind of a book is essentially a shotgun approach"

I'm not sure I completely agree with that. There is certainly a shotgun element, but book readers - like blog readers - are also self-selecting, and it is very unlikely that everybody who would select it is already reading this blog. And if they are now, will they be in 3 years?

"The blog posts, so far as I can tell, are doing as well a job of teaching their readers as can reasonably be expected."

I would argue that a book would be better at teaching. Personally, I know that on some days I missed posts for one reason or another (traveling, too busy, whatever), and by the time I started reading again I had a long backlog, which was tedious to read on the screen, etc. There's simply a bigger barrier to entry, especially for people who aren't already convinced, or people who simply don't read much on the net in their free time but pick up lots of books.

Newcomers might also find this blog and see a hard post that belong in the middle of a series (or simply something that happens to not interest them) and simply give up and not come back. I suspect this is happening every day. With a book, you have the benefit of having everybody start from the beginning and you can gradually hook them.

" We *will* need to prepare something for the next generation, but that's caused by the nature of blogging, not some deficiency in Eli's postings."

Exactly. The current format is crippling the potential of the material, so onward with the book(s)!

Comment author: Steve 15 March 2008 04:57:51PM 0 points [-]

Publish the book. Do the other stuff, too, especially the 'feed the author thing'. I, and people I know, buy and financially support people who provide something worthwhile on the internet even though its available 'free'.

Given what I understand to be your underlying view about how natural processing in the brain inherently uses probability, trust your instincts.

Besides, if you right your book and some non positive AI reads it, maybe it will make sense to it and it will become positive in a way humanity would like to see.

:)

Comment author: Michael_G.R. 16 March 2008 04:54:18AM 0 points [-]

I might be a bit late with this, but here's my 2 cents:

"Maybe spend another month or two doing large transhumanist sequences, either on the Singularity Institute blog (currently fairly defunct) or here on Overcoming Bias if the readers really want that."

I suggest writing the Transhumanist stuff on either a new blog (wordpress.com is free and easy to set up) or the SIAI blog, and link that prominently from Overcoming Bias. Maybe even do a weekly roundup/linkfest post here to remind people.

This would mean that you wouldn't lose those who are interested, and that those who aren't can easily skip it and spare us the complaining.

Comment author: Zubon 19 March 2008 01:23:33PM 0 points [-]

Checking the Penguicon site, you have three events listed but the date column just has a " instead of the date. Have any details? (Also, if you want to encourage people to come, make sure to pimp those events in another post, with at least a couple weeks for folks to plan travel.) I was thinking of swinging by on Saturday, since I will be in the general area. I have never been to a convention, but it looks like a fun event.