Dual Wielding Kindle Scribes

Two Kindle Scribes, each with a manga cover on them

This is an informal post intended to describe a workflow /​ setup that I found very useful, so that others might consider adopting or experimenting with facets of it that they find useful.

In August 2023, I was a part of MATS 4.0 and had begun learning the skill of deconfusion, with an aim of disentangling my conflicting intuitions between my belief that shard theory seemed to be at least directionally pointing at some issues with the MIRI model of AGI takeoff and alignment difficulty, and my belief that Nate Soares was obviously correct that reflection will break Alex Turner’s diamond alignment scheme. A friend lent me his Kindle Scribe to try out as part of my workflow. I started using it for note-taking, and found it incredibly useful and bought it from him. A month later, I bought a second Kindle Scribe to add to my workflow.

It has been about six months since, and I’ve sold both my Kindle Scribes. Here’s why I found this workflow useful (and therefore why you might find it useful), and why I moved on from it.

The Display

The Kindle Scribe is a marvelous piece of hardware. With a 300 PPI e-ink 10.3 inch screen, reading books on it was a delight in comparison to any other device I’ve used to read content on. The stats I just mentioned matter:

  • 300 PPI on a 10.3 inch display means the displayed text is incredibly crisp, almost indistinguishable from normal laptop and smartphone screens. This is not the case for most e-ink readers.

  • E-ink screens seem to reduce eye strain by a non-trivial amount. I’ve looked into some studies, but the sample sizes and effect sizes were not enough to make me unilaterally recommend people switch to e-ink screens for reading. However, it does seem like the biggest benefit of using e-ink screens seems to be that you aren’t staring into a display that is constantly shining light into your eyeballs, which is the equivalent of staring into a lightbulb. Anecdotally, it did seem like I was able to read and write for longer hours when I only used e-ink screens: I went from, about 8 to 10 hours a day (with some visceral eye fatigue symptoms like discomfort at the end of the day) to about 12 to 14 hours a day, without these symptoms, based on my informal tracking during September 2023.

  • 10.3 inch screens (with a high PPI) just feel better to use in comparison to smaller (say, 6 to 7 inch screens) for reading. This seems to me to be due to a greater amount of text displayed on the screen at any given time, which seems to somehow limit the feeling of comprehensibility of the text. I assume this is somehow related to chunking of concepts in working memory, where if you have a part of a ‘chunk’ on one page, and another part on another page, you may have a subtle difficulty with comprehending what you are reading (if it is new to you), and the more the text you have in front of you, the more you can externalize the effort of comprehension. (I used a Kobo Libra 2 (7 inch e-ink screen) for a bit to compare how it felt to read on, to get this data.)

Also, you can write notes in the Kindle Scribe. This was a big deal for me, since before this, I used to write notes on my laptop, and my laptop was a multi-purpose device.

Sidenote: My current philosophy of note-taking is that I think ‘on paper’ using these notes, and don’t usually refer to it later on. The aim is to augment my working memory with an external tool, and the way I write notes usually reflects this—I either write down most of my relevant and conscious thoughts as I think them (organized as a sequence of trees, where each node is a string representing a ‘thought’), or I usually write ‘waypoints’ for my thoughts, where each waypoint is a marker for a conclusion of a sequence /​ tree of thoughts, or an interesting ‘thought’ that I want to think about more later. Outlining tools like Dynalist, Workflowy and org-mode (which is what I use right now) seem closest to describing how I feel I think and how I want my note-taking tool to look like, and this is also how I took notes on the Kindle Scribe.

Single-purpose devices enhance focus

The Kindle Scribe is a single-purpose device. You can read books on it, you can write notes on it. That’s it. The in-built web browser is an utter travesty and I hope you never have to use it.

And this is a good thing. The main benefit of a Kindle Scribe, to me, was that I couldn’t simply switch to another browser tab and do an internet search for something that just bubbled up in my mind that I was curious about, which would lead me to suddenly losing two hours to something that wasn’t actually relevant to what I wanted to learn. Now, if your day mainly consists of programming work, whether ML engineering or research, this workflow obviously doesn’t make sense for you. However, what I was doing was mainly thinking and writing thoughts, and reading alignment (and computer science and math and rationality) literature during that time period, so the workflow was almost perfect for me. I went from taking a week or two to read a book like Good and Real to a day or two.

Of course, a lot of important alignment literature is in the form of LessWrong or AlignmentForum posts, or posts on websites such as MIRI’s Blog. To get these on my Kindle, I used the WebToEpub Firefox extension, and archived many sequences and sets of essays as EPUBs that I would then upload to my Kindle and read on it. This way, the amount of time I spent using a device connected to the internet, like my laptop, was drastically limited, and I spent a lot more time working.

One to read, another to write on

A Kindle Scribe with my written notes on it

One problem with the Kindle Scribe is that I couldn’t switch from the note-taking application to the book I was reading very quickly. It would take about 5 to 10 seconds in total to press all the menu buttons and wait for the device to react, to switch. This wasn’t practical given how I wanted to be able to write arbitrary numbers of pages of notes when a thought popped into my mind in reaction to, say, my realization that Gary Drescher’s description of reductionism seemed to elaborate on subtle mental motions that Eliezer hadn’t in his Reductionism 101 sequence, and my desire to think up what other mental motions might exist and try to write an informal “deconfusion algorithm”. You can only write a limited notecard-sized amount of notes attached to certain highlighted passages when inside a Kindle book—you need the note-taking app to write pages of notes.

So I bought another Kindle Scribe for 400 EUR. It was an expensive buy, but I was quite convinced that the money spent would be worth the productivity gain over the long term, and I felt like I was on an upswing in terms of financial and career stability. Additionally, if one of my Kindles broke or was stolen, I’d still have another at hand to continue referring to my notes and writing them and reading them, so I was essentially paying for resilience of my setup to a certain extent.

It worked pretty well. As of February 2023, I believe I’ve had about 400 pages worth of notes written in the Scribes, most of it related to alignment, rationality and computer science. The rest of it was related to my personal life. I would regularly the previous few days of my notes, either to find TODOs I had noted that I wanted to move to my task management system, or to re-orient myself for another day of research related to some specific topic.

I also sometimes used the two Kindle Scribes as two separate “notebooks” by keeping a “general” notebook open in one, and a “research” notebook open in another. I’d write down any personal life ideas and thoughts and TODOs in the “general” notebook, and thoughts related to deconfusion and alignment research and the specific topics I was reading about, in the “research” notebook. This removed another trivial inconvenience of not being able to immediately put thoughts onto paper whenever something interesting arose in my mind, and I believe I gained a lot from it.

Moving on

I began a sabbatical from alignment research in November 2023, mainly because I felt burnt out due to the pace at which I was working (which was, in hindsight, quite unsustainable). I stopped writing notes in the Kindle Scribes, but I continued to use them to read books and archived web essays. I learned to use (and set up) Emacs over the course of November and December, and found that I really liked taking notes and reading books in Emacs, so I gradually switched over to only using Emacs for note-taking and reading books.

Eventually I realized that while I really liked e-ink screens, I couldn’t stand using the Kindle interface for my books and notes. Ideally I’d be using an e-ink display as an external display, or an e-ink tablet running Emacs on a Linux/​BSD operating system, but Kindle Scribes are very closed-down devices, and it was infeasible to consider trying to use its hardware to run the software I wanted to run on it.

I have recently begun experimenting with disabling internet on my laptop by default, which seems to have at least some of the effects that this workflow did. I’m still in the process of refining how I do things.

The one last clear use I had for the Kindles was to be able to read books when travelling—such as when at the airport or when in a plane. But when I actually did travel across continents recently, I found that I didn’t read any book (mainly because I didn’t feel like I had the cognitive fuel to read the stuff I wanted to read), and only used the Scribes to write my thoughts down—something I could do with a pen and paper too.

So I sold off my Kindle Scribes this week. I probably will eventually (when I feel like I have the slack to do so) test out an e-ink display connected to a laptop as a second screen. I hear that the framerate for e-ink screens is abyssmal, but I have hope that I could figure out a viable setup that uses e-ink displays eventually.