The Billionaire Gentleman Scholar

Why the future belongs to the wordcel tinkerer.

I spent the past two weeks in one of the deepest rabbit holes I’ve ever fallen into.

I’ve been developing software, which is a ridiculous statement given that I’ve never properly learned computer programming and I have no idea how to build software.

You can probably guess where this is going.

I've been using AI to write code for me. The AI also tells me what to do with that code, step by step.

It really feels like one of the craziest changes that has ever occurred in my life working with words on a computer.

I’ve always wanted to build software, and I’ve always dabbled, but as a busy man with a different career, I’ve never really crossed the threshold. I never really acquired the power to build. The joy and exhilaration of speed-typing lines and lines of code, and the satisfaction of producing a useful, interesting, creative tool. And now, just all of a sudden, I can.

It's not just that you can build software with English as your programming language, it's that you can keep going—you can make consistent progress rapidly, getting more advanced as you go, and I have not yet found any ceiling.

You encounter problems and errors, but then you just zoom into them, have the AI solve them, and then you're moving forward again. I know that skilled engineers possess reams of knowledge and ability I may never replicate with machine assistants—I make no such claims.

But I can tell you what I have seen. And I can tell you what I have learned so far.

Though I do not expect to build a billion-dollar empire of one-man software products myself, I suspect that someone will.

For every billionaire software developer, there will be hundreds or thousands of millionaire software developers.

And what’s most exciting to me is that I think we’ll see many millionaire software developers who never even learned to code (the old way). People like me—wordcels, scholars, tinkerers—will build whole portfolios of modest but valuable software products for hyper-niche use-cases.

In this post, I’ll tell you how I think about this.

And I will tell you how to get started.

At the bottom, I’ll include one detailed prompt for building your first web app and two of my best scripts for reading and writing tasks (entity-dense summarization of arbitrarily long texts, and turning your essays into subtle and tasteful tweets in your style).

English as a Programming Language: The Prose <> Code Flywheel

In a context of technological acceleration, it's all about positive feedback loops.

If you can't insert your creativity into some kind of positive feedback loop, you’re not going to make it through the next bottleneck.

So let’s talk about one specific feedback loop that is insanely exciting to me, and it's immediately available right now.

It's what I've been doing the past two weeks.

In fact, I almost don't want to tell you about it.

I want to make more progress and tell you only after a few months, but who cares? It's just too interesting not to share.

And I want you to do it, also. So we can compare notes and promote each others’ projects.

Writers should build software to make themselves better writers and more prolific publishers.

Then use AI to build niche software you can sell to your particular niche audience.

Because software is the highest-leverage form of monetization, any writer who succeeds on this path could very well jump way ahead of the others in terms of audience and profit.

The edge in publishing feeds the edge in monetization, and the profits are plowed back into the publishing system, and so on.

I'm not claiming I’ll be the first to crack this code. But I can try!

How to Build Software With Natural Language

I’ve built two fully-functioning web apps so far. One is deployed to the web, the other will be soon. They both do things, and they both can take payments that go into my bank account. Each one took about a week of focused effort. Crucially, the second is way better and more valuable than the first.

In this section, I will teach you how to build your first web app without knowing a thing about programming or software.

Start with the best currently available LLM: ChatGPT. Literally, just tell it what you want your app to do. Just say the functional requirements from the user’s perspective, let the LLM decide the technical approach. Add things like: “Tell me exactly what to do, and in what order.”

It will generally start with an outline of the tasks. Save that outline somewhere, then go back and ask it to explain, in detail, each particular item, one at a time. Say things like "Tell me the exact files to create and where to place them" and "Give me all of the exact code I need to put in this file."

One tip: At the outset, tell ChatGPT that you want to build your app using Replit. Replit is just a web platform for developers, it abstracts out all of the most annoying technical stuff you’re most likely to get snagged on using your own computer. With Replit and ChatGPT, you could have a functioning minimal prototype in an hour or less. Make a free account on Replit and just do what the LLM says. When you're done on Replit, though, you can just export the entire codebase of the app (including all the technical background stuff you outsourced to Replit).

At that point, just tell ChatGPT for guidance on how to deploy your app to the web. I recommend Render, which is like Heroku but cheaper. You can start with free (though the app will go down when it’s not being used). Or you can pay $7/mo to keep your app humming on the web full time.

That's pretty much it. If you hit any snag, or GPT tells you to do something you don’t understand, just ask it to explain that thing. If the app in Replit gives you error, just copy and paste the full error into ChatGPT.

You will occasionally fall into a dead end. A local maximum where no amount of additional asking will clear the way forward. You’ll know you’ve hit a wall when your requests for help start cycling: Try A. You try A and report the error. Try B, it tells you. You try B and report the error. Try A, it says… Once this happens a few times, stop. Delete your recent changes and go back to the last working version of the app, and just try a different approach to whatever you were originally seeking. Ask for it differently, perhaps lightly nudging it away from the errors you got on the first approach. “Give me the code I need to accept a payment through Stripe, but I do not want a complicated checkout process. Give me the simplest possible way to do this.” That kind of thing.

Finally, you may need to consult the docs of the APIs you wish to use. If GPT does not know the API well, you can often copy and paste into GPT key parts of the API docs. “Here is what a correctly structured API call looks like,” or “Here is what the response will look like…” If you don’t know what an API is, ask it. You can also ask it to recommend APIs.

As I shared with you many weeks ago, the first not-completely-trivial app that I built exclusively with ChatGPT is an app that will print and mail a letter to anyone in the USA. I updated it this week, by the way. I overhauled the design, added mobile responsiveness, and included an image of what the printed letters look like.

I’m not expecting my Electromagnetic Papyrograph to change the world or make much money, but it gave me all the proof I needed to keep tinkering.

Recursively Self-Improving Writers

Then, about two weeks ago, I had a real idea...

And now we're getting closer to that feedback loop I was talking about before.

Over the past few months, I've developed several custom LLM prompts that are tailored to help me with various editorial tasks (I’ll also share some of these at the bottom of this post).

But I have a very strong opinion here…

A lot of people are thinking about AI very badly when it comes to the question of writing. A lot of people talk about these tools as if we're going to have them think for us. Or as if they can be important sparring partners. You hear phrases like this a lot right now, "sparring partners.”

I don't buy it.

At least not yet.

Currently, I would never let any of these tools anywhere near the task of creating, discovering, or even suggesting ideas to me. Who knows what dark forces you’re summoning!

My mind, my perspective, my education, my motivations, my dreams, and my values are all far more interesting and meaningful and powerful than anything these machines can generate out of thin air. At least for now, and I suspect for quite a long time.

The long term future is very hard to know, so I'm generally not interested in talking about that. I'm interested in the medium term and what can be done.

Now, today, what these tools can absolutely handle are the mechanical aspects of writing and publishing.

Spelling and grammar, for instance, is essentially the application of well defined algorithms.

Translating from one language to another is not as artistic as some people want you to think it is; it's an algorithm.

Taking some unstructured observations and turning them into a logically sequenced format. That's not creative or artistic either, it's mechanical.

Turning an essay into a video outline, or lecture notes—mechanical. Speaking or lecturing, I would not outsource. But turning one format into another is mechanical.

These are all examples of the kind of work that you could train an 18-year-old intern to do for you, while keeping all of your published work 100% original, personal, and in your authentic voice. If your ideas are good and intelligent, the published items will be good and intelligent. If your ideas are bad and stupid, the published items will be bad and stupid. There is no cheating here on anything that matters.

That's what the AIs are right now: Good, but not genius, 18-year-old interns who are willing to work day and night for an extremely small salary—around $20/mo, or maybe ~$100/mo if you’re doing this stuff every day with the API.

In a capitalist economy, if it’s possible and it produces an edge, someone will do it. Smart writers must learn how to use their new interns correctly—not too much, but also not too little. I think the correct heuristic is to offload as much of the mechanical labor as possible.

Following this heuristic to its limit, could I build a software system that handles all of the mechanical labors of a modern internet writer, in one organized set of pipelines? At the limit, all I would do is live, read, think, and write down the essential ideas, arguments, experiences, concepts, implications, and conclusions that I discover in my research and life—then everything else is lightly edited, chopped up, formatted, and delivered over multiple public channels. All executed automatically through a series of scripts and finely-optimized LLM calls.

Everything is 100% composed of what I input—my ideas, my words, my style— Nothing more than me, and nothing less than me. It’s only the non-human legwork that’s being radically streamlined.

I would never publish anything under my own name that is not, in fact, my work.

But this authenticity and fidelity is not necessarily anti-technological. It’s a matter of tasteful prompt-engineering. In other words, whereas unscrupulous copywriters might want LLM tools to churn out a thousand generic blog posts an hour, thoughtful writers will want LLM tools to not plagiarize and not add anything at all. This is what I’ve been playing with for months now: Designing prompts and pipelines of prompts that can change my own original ideas and text as little as possible, while executing the kind of valuable labor that writers have outsourced to editors and assistants for hundreds of years.

It's also a matter of fine-tuning the models, which is something I haven't played with yet. Though I do think that’s going to be an important part of the pipeline, which I'll start testing soon.

But imagine this pipeline is completely built out. Assume it's only half as good as I sketched it. Any writer who uses this pipeline is going to be able to publish much more, and much better, than those who don’t.

Then they'll start using AI to build software tools that are custom fit to the needs of their audience.

By the way, whoever solves the application of AI to publishing efficiency can turn that into a paid software product in its own right. That's actually what I've been working on specifically over the past couple weeks—my second piece of software. I've been obsessed, it's the deepest rabbit hole I've fell into since I got into Urbit.

I actually right now have a working web app with login and authentication and a database and everything, where each page is one of my custom pipelines that I've built for editorial tasks. The outputs are much, much better than anything I've found anywhere else. Just because the quality of outputs is super domain-specific and requires a lot of tinkering for custom use-cases.

I want to make it better before I release it, but it works. I'm using it for real work every day.

Conclusion: The Billionaire Gentleman Scholar

Anyway, that is how you get to the billionaire gentleman scholar: One interesting, freethinking man builds an audience with their ideas, builds software products for their audience, and uses the money to scale more audience and more software. Eventually they build recursively self-improving software, which they are also selling as its own product. One man, a billion dollars. What do you think? Is it possible? I think we’ll see it within 20 years.

Again, I’m not saying it will be me. But you can bet I’m going to tinker in this direction!

I'm just reporting what I see, and I see this opportunity. Someone is going to figure it out, or multiple people are going to figure it out, and you're gonna have weird individual thinkers and writers who are also building strange software systems and wiring these things up in bizarre ways that unlock explosive amounts of value at scale through different kinds of positive feedback loops like the ones I've sketched here.

It makes me think of the wild Victorian tinkerers, the men who would be up all night in their study working by oil lamps on some harebrained mechanical invention. And maybe .001% of them got rich. Except now, the new gentlemen scholars have incredible leverage, the leverage of global, instantaneous, free publishing and the leverage of AI-assisted software development.

I can't wait to see how it develops, and I hope that you, too, will experiment with these opportunities.

For paying subscribers, below you will find a few highly effective prompts and one prompt pipeline (a Python script) that I’ve had the most success with.

  • One detailed prompt for starting the process of building your first web app. Starting with this prompt you could probably get a very simple concept up and running in one evening.

  • Summarize arbitrarily long texts (like books) into key points with high density (low fluff, high on names, facts, and entities). Most freely available summarizers tools are terrible and only work on short texts.

  • Turn any essay into subtle, thoughtful, understated tweets in the style of the essay author. Then use the tweets to compose a thoughtful, understated Twitter thread. Every tweet generation tool I’ve ever seen generates ridiculous crap because the average tweet, historically, is garbage.

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