The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Richard Feynman’s popular book has an evocative title. The pleasure of finding things our is universal but different people have very different horizons as to where they are comfortable finding out something new. A brilliant mind such as Feynman’s stretches to the far reaches of what is knowable to find out what is going on and to see what surprises might be in store. A more ordinary mind will like to find out something which is related strongly to their interests and is more tightly connected to what they already know (their schema). These two descriptions are superficially different but of course they refer to the same thing, just described differently; the only real difference is the size of their schema and their capacity, and hence their interest, in expanding it along the very edges of their maps rather than finding out small differences deep within their maps.

A curious corollary to the pleasure of finding things out (with the implication of finding things out on our own) is the displeasure of being told something.

The psychology of the distance between being pleased to being told to being very displeased is divided into segments based on the roles other people play in our lives. To learn something from someone close to us (at any point after our ‘assimilation’ period ends) can quickly and easily feel like we are being patronised (controlled and not respected), with a curious middle area of friends suggesting music and TV shows which we will have an immediate suspicion of, to the other end of the spectrum of those whose roles are to teach us, either as a respected teacher or though wider media, where the displeasure of being told can turn into the pleasure of learning.

The relevance of this as to liquid views is that liquid views aims to support the process of finding things out on your own, by providing a highly interactive thinking space where your working memory is augmented visually and your own knowledge can be mapped out so that you can see what might be missing and new connections can become apparent.

‘Making PDF Great Again’

The Goal

I am looking at producing a document format which will be used for ‘publishing’ academic documents which provides ‘a rich amount of data’ for a reader to interact with, not thin documents like current PDFs.

  • By ‘publishing’ I mean making public, in a way which freezes the document, much like making a printed document public.
  • By ‘a rich amount of data’ I mean keeping any meta-data the author would want to include, as well as any advanced views of the document, such as something in the style of Liquid Views:

The Challenge

The ubiquity of PDFs will make it hard to challenge the current workflow.

The Workflow to Augment

The purpose of this project is to augment the full academic and scientific workflow – the interoperability feature is required to fully support the full lifecycle:

•  The Literature Review which currently happens through ‘thin’ PDF documents.
•  Performing Experiments
•  Developing The Thesis
•  Authoring
•  Collaboration & Review
•  Publishing. This is where the current PDF publishing method strips out a large amount of contextual data generated in the process, providing the person who is doing a literature review based on this document only a thin sliver of what was generated.

The Proposal : Rich PDF

Many in the  academic world are generally well versed in writing to export in LaTex to make sure their documents appear in the appropriate academic layout style.

The proposal here is to help the author tag their document as though exporting using LaTex style tagging/formatting, and using this tag data to export as a properly formatted PDF and adding a full XML sheet of all the attributes the author would like to have persist with the document (removing any data such as earlier drafts which the author may not want added).

For those who are not used to LaText all they will notice is that they are highlighting and tagging the document.


The user simply marks up the important elements of the document and these elements are preserved even though the published form is PDF


Open Document in Standard PDF Reader

Anyone can then open the resulting .pdf document in any PDF reader to read the document as they expect.

Open Document in Rich PDF Reader

Any user with a Rich PDF aware application can open the document and the PDF rendered layout can be thought of almost as a label which is not used; the rich data from the document is still contained within and can be used for a rich reading experience.

Specific Benefits

All the advanced features of the authoring environment will be retained. For example:

•  Free-form layouts for mind maps/concept maps will have all the 2D/3D layout data preserved for the reader to view how the author saw the connections in the document.
•  Live formulas will be preserved for the reader to interact with.
•  Rich data can be included, in compressed form.

Adoption & Power

This way we have an entirely new document format which will enable the user to richly and powerfully interact with the data in a published, ‘archived’ document yet everyone can open the powerfully features of the basic document.

Producers of authoring software can then further innovate with advanced reading functionality, knowing that documents can support the interactions.

Development Opportunities

If my word processor features an advanced layout then another developer’s software can choose to be able to use the data from my word processor or offer alternatives views, but not destroy the data which was generated by my word processor, so the user can always go back and view it in my application.


In order to create such a system we will need to evaluate current rich document interchange standards and write up a spec based on this for the XML in PDF data, which we will then share with our friends in the word processor development community, where we will then settle on a standard which will be useable across the board.

I will be in touch with developer friends once a basic in-house spec has been generally agreed upon.

PostScript : Why Now?

“…the way that scientists share their results once they have them  … it’s a PDF in a journal that you can download and you can look at charts and graphs and read a static document, that’s what it is basically, there might be the odd chance to download a bit of data or watch a video or look at some pictures but for the most part it’s the same technology that’s been around for hundreds of years albeit you can now download it in a PDF and to Freeman’s mind, and it’s a fair point, that’s ridiculous…’

 Jeremy Freeman of Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, referred to in 14 minutes in on the Wired podcast

(Since Stuart Arnott brought the Freeman podcast to my attention I have been thinking (again) about about to re-invent academic documents. I sent a page of suggestions to a few people, including my advisor Les Carr, Joe Corneli (who has the very interesting notion of Scholia to put in the mix), Christopher Gutteridge who shredded my proposal (thanks, it was useful) and Mark Anderson with whom I had a long chat, which should have been recorded but these chats are often in loud student areas so likely would have been horrible to listen to anyway)

This lead to the concept presented here, for which I am grateful to Jeremy Freeman for providing the impetus.

‘Features of Similarity’ : Amos Tversky

‘Features of Similarity’ : Amos Tversky

From ‘The Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis.

Highly relevant to the Liquid View design.

Summary: When we compare something we judge features, not a simple physical distance of ‘resemblance’ on a mental map/chart.


Excerpts from the section:


What goes on in the mind when it evaluates how much one thing is like, or not like, another? The process is so fundamental to our existence that we scarcely stop to think about it. “It’s the process that grinds away constantly and generates much of our understanding and response to the world,” says Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner. “First of all it’s, how do you categorise things? And that’s everything. Do I sleep with him or not? Do I eat this or not? Do I give to this person or not? Is that a boy or a girl? Is that a predator or prey? If you solve how the process works, you solve how we know things. It’s how knowledge about the world is organised. It’s like the thread that is woven thorough everything in the mind.”

The reigning theories in psychology of how people made judgments about similarity all had one thing in common: They were based on physical distance. When you compare two things, you are asking how closely they resemble each other. Two objects, two people, two ideas, two emotions: In psychological theory they existed in the mind as they would on a map, or on a grid, or in some other physical space, as points with some fixed relationship to each other. Amos wondered about that.

“What Amos worked out was that whatever is going on is not a distance,” says Gonzalez.

“In one swoop he basically dismissed all theories that made use of distance. If you have a distance concept in your theory you are automatically wrong.”

Amos had his own theory, which he called “features of similarity.”

He argued that when people compared two things, and judged their similarity, they were essentially making a list of features.

These features are simply what they notice about the objects.

They count up the noticeable features shared by two objects: The more they share, the more similar they are; the more they don’t share, the more dissimilar they are.

From Amos’s theory about the way people made judgments of similarity spilled all sorts of interesting insights.

If the mind, when it compares two things, essentially counts up the features it notices in each of them, it might also judge those things to be at once more similar and more dissimilar to each other than some other pair of things. They might have both a lot in common and a lot not in common. Love and hate, and funny and sad, and serious and silly: Suddenly they could be seen—as they feel—as having more fluid relationships to each other. They weren’t simply opposites on a fixed mental continuum; they could be thought of as similar in some of their features and different in others. Amos’s theory also offered a fresh view into what might be happening when people violated transitivity and thus made seemingly irrational choices.

When people picked coffee over tea, and tea over hot chocolate, and then turned around and picked hot chocolate over coffee-they weren’t comparing two drinks in some holistic manner. Hot drinks didn’t exist as points on some mental map at fixed distances from some ideal. They were collections of features. Those features might become more or less noticeable; their prominence in the mind depended on the context in which they were perceived. And the choice created its own context: Different features might assume greater prominence in the mind when the coffee was being compared to tea (caffeine) than when it was being compared to hot chocolate (sugar).

And what was true of drinks might also be true of people, and ideas, and emotions.

The idea was interesting:

When people make decisions, they are also making judgments about similarity, between some object in the real world and what they ideally want.

They make these judgments by, in effect, counting up the features they notice. And as the noticeability of features can be manipulated by the way they are highlighted, the sense of how similar two things are might also be manipulated. For instance, if you wanted two people to think of themselves as more similar to each other than they otherwise might, you might put them in a context that stressed the features they shared.

Two American college students in the United States might look at each other and see a total stranger; the same two college students on their junior year abroad in Togo might find that they are surprisingly similar: They’re both Americans!

By changing the context in which two things are compared, you submerge certain features and force others to the surface. “It is generally assumed that classifications are determined by similarities among the objects,” wrote Amos, before offering up an opposing view: that “the similarity of objects is modified by the manner in which they are classified. Thus, similarity has two faces: causal and derivative.

It serves as a basis for the classification of objects, but is also influenced by the adopted classification.”

A banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit. Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.