Here’s a list of things that I hope to do in 2012.

I’ve intentionally excluded some of my bigger goals from this list because there is evidence that telling people your goals makes you less likely to achieve them. This list is not in any particular order.
Play Portal: I’ve been out of the gaming scene for a while partly because of my busy schedule and partly because I run Linux. However, I’ve been meaning to give Portal a shot for a long time. Portal is an iconic game that is very well reviewed. More importantly it’s also short. People tell me that even as an out of practice gamer I should be able to finish it in a day.

Take Advantage of Winters in Boston: The cold weather in Boston starts to get a bit tiresome by the end of winter. I’ve learned to cope with it and I appreciate the beauty of snow but I’ve never really taken advantage of it. This year, I’d like to find an activity that will make me look forward to the winter weather rather than dread it. I went cross country skiing a couple of years ago in slushy snow on the Weston course in March. But I expect that cross country skiing on nicer trails in better weather would be a much more enjoyable experience.  I would also like to try ice skating and snow shoeing.

Go to Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology:
I’ve been to the Harvard Museum of Natural History three times but I’ve never been in the Harvard  Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Though the two museums are connected, I’ve only been to the HMNH during special evening events when the Peabody part was closed. However, I live less than a mile away and I get free admission as a Harvard employee, so 2012 should be the year that I finally visit.

Eat at New Boston Vegetarian Restaurants: There are some new vegetarian restaurants in the Boston area that I would like to try. Veggie Galaxy Diner just opened a few months ago in Central Square in Cambridge. It’s owned by the same people as Veggie Planet and has been well spoken of by people who’ve been there. Prana Café  has been around for a while but I’ve yet to visit perhaps because it’s in Newton and Cantabrigians rarely cross the river. Nevertheless, I’ve been meaning to go for a while and I just purchased a Groupon for it so I’ll definitely eat there in the next few months.

Read a Graphic Novel: I picked up the first two volumes of Girl Genius at Arisia and I’m looking forward to reading them. I also have The Watchmen, and Maus on my shelf.

Bike the W & OD Trail — The W & OD trail is a 30 mile bike trail in Northern Virginia along the former Washington and Old Dominion Railroad line see ( The trail travels within a mile of my family’s house where I grew up. I’ve walked and biked on small segments but have yet to explore most of the trail. The next time I’m visiting Northern Virginia, I would really like to bike the rest of the trail.

Go to this Year’s HOPE: HOPE (Hackers On Planet Earth) is a biannual computer and technology conference in New York. I’ve been to the previous 2 HOPE’s and found them to be both enjoyable and enlightening. I’m very much looking forward to this year’s HOPE.

Experience the Significant Internet Memes: I don’t have time to watch every video on Youtube. I don’t even have time to watch every video on Youtube that gets a minor following. What I do hope to do is catch the significant ones. What constitutes significance is of course open to debate and part of the challenge will be defining it. I plan to start by looking at the ROFL con guest list on the assumption that a video worth inviting someone to ROFL for is by definition significant.

Do the Salem SegGliders Tour: I’ve long been curious about riding a segway and the Salem SegGliders tour will be my chance to do that as well as to see Salem. I’ve purchased a Groupon for the tour that I’ll have to use up by May.

Procrastination, Forcing Functions and Deadlines

I’m been thinking a bit about the importance of forcing functions and deadlines. I’ve been considering whether to take a class this semester but sadly the class that would make the most sense for me to take isn’t being offered until 2013. I’ve been debating between taking a class on a less relevant (to me) topic or simply trying to study the material that will be most relevant to me on my own.

Classes offer many advantages over self-study. You have an expert in the subject who chooses the material, is able to answer your questions, and provides you with feed back on your work. Lectures provide a dimension that you can’t get by simply reading a book. Still, the more I think about it, the more I realize that classes also serve as a forcing function. Assignments have deadlines and in order to meet them, you have to carve out the time to work on them.

I’m seen a similar phenomena in other areas. Iron Blogger is a prime example. Almost every one of the Iron Blogger participants has been blogging more frequently since joining. Iron Blogger imposes a hard deadline and even though the cost of missing the deadline is small ($5) people still strive to meet it. Even if you make minimum wage, your time cost to write a blog post is probably going to be greater than $5. Ostensibly, if you believe that blogging is important you would be doing it frequently without the pressure of a deadline.

Last semester, I participated in a program at the Harvard Gym called the Group Exercise Triathlon which required participants to complete 34 group exercise classes in various categories by the end of the semester. The prize for doing this was a free T-shirt. Once I committed to the program, I did everything that I could to finish it. I probably got more exercise in the month of November than any other point in my life. Again the T-shirt itself was not the primary motivator it was a deeper desire to meet a deadline.

Why do deadlines and forcing functions work? Earliest deadline first is a simple and often optimal strategy but tends to neglect the important but not urgent tasks. Assigning hard deadlines to those tasks ensures that they are not neglected. Similarly deadlines also enable greater mental focus on a task.

Game theory can also provide insight into the effectiveness of deadlines. Deadlines irrevocably commit you to a course of action. In our society, they allow you to leave a social situation to work on a task when social obligations would have normally required a longer visit. Compare “I wish I could hang out longer but I have to finish X by tomorrow” to “I’d like to hang out longer but I want to finish X by tomorrow even though there will be no consequences if I finish it a day later.” (This may be why external deadlines are more effective, if you set your own deadline, you can usually give yourself an extension.) A Freudian psychologist might also see deadlines as a way of the ego and super ego committing you to doing something that the id will not enjoy.

The Dark Side of Forcing Functions

One danger is people gaming the system. In the case of a class, this may mean doing what will get you the best grade rather than what help you learn the most, e.g cramming, ignoring material that won’t be on the exam, avoiding interesting but risky projects. (I’ve found classes taken for no credit can actually be more stressful because while the deadlines are still there, grades are no longer the metric of whether I’ve put in enough time.) Within Iron Blogger, it means writing a post that can be finished by the deadline rather then working on the best possible post. (This post will not win a Pulitzer and there are other blog posts that I’ve been meaning to write. But the others would not have been finished by the deadline.) Within the Group Exercise Triathlon, it meant focusing on the classes that would most help meet my requirements rather than the ones that were the most enjoyable or the healthiest.

Deadlines have undeniable power to make people accomplish certain tasks. However, it remains to be seen whether there are limits to their power. Deadlines are often met by topics such as all nighters which are bad long term strategies and by procrastinating on other tasks. It’s possible that deadlines don’t increase overall productivity but merely reallocate it within a zero sum game. I plan to explore deadlines more and to look for a way to create self imposed deadlines that have the same motivational power as external ones.

Why Life is Too Short for Spiral Notebooks

One of the things that I learned in 2011 is that spiral notebooks should be avoid where ever possible. This post will detail why I’ve switched to using wireless bound notebooks exclusively.

Until this year, I had always used spiral notebooks due to habit and inertia — I started using them in Middle school and just continued. However, before my retreat this year, I recalled a friend’s dislike of spiral notebooks and decided to pack a wireless bound notebook in addition to a spiral one. I found that I greatly preferred the feel of the wireless notebook. Holding the notebook in my lap was more pleasant and writing was much easier without the metal coil to get in the way.

But the advantages of a wireless notebook are not limited to the feel of writing in it. Wireless notebook store better. They are a pleasant addition to a bookshelf. If you use a label maker to label the spine, the wireless notebooks contents can easily be determined at a glance. ( The calming effect of labeled file folders that David Allen talks about in Getting Things Done also applies to labeled notebooks.) The labeled wireless notebook conveys a sense of efficiency and minimalist design elegance. If pages are removed from the notebook, the space it requires shrinks accordingly. Compare this to a spiral notebook in the same bookcase. Its contents cannot be known without removing it from the shelf. Even if all its pages, the spiral notebook will still take up as much space as the metal spiral portion. Its appearance is neither pleasing nor calming. At best, a clean metal spiral looks out of place compared to other books on the shelf. At worst, the spiral is filled with the remnants of torn out pages and conveys a sense of disorder.

Another benefit of wireless notebooks is that the pages are easier to remove. In a spiral notebook without perforations the edges of the removed pages are a jagged mess. Perforations make page removal easier but there is still a cumbersome process of removing the jagged edges.

For these reasons, I will avoid spiral notebooks in the future and give away any empty spiral notebooks that I currently have.

E-books in Translation: The Possibility of Dynamic Rendering

E-books in Translation: The Possibility of Dynamic Rendering


Abstract: E-books could fundamentally transform translated works. We argue for a paradigm shift in the role of the translator. Instead of taking a foreign language work and producing a single rendering of it in the reader’s language, the translator would annotate the original work in order to provide data that could be used by different readers to electronically render different versions of the work according to their individual criteria. We focus mainly on the bible and discuss cases in which readers may disagree with the translator’s decision and wish for alternate renderings. We also discuss other works in which reader controlled rendering might be desirable such as anime.


Currently translators take a text in one language and create a rendering of it in a language that’s accessible to their readers. There will never be a perfect mapping from one language to another. As such, a text can be rendered in multiple ways. For example, there may be multiple ways a term can be translated. Each may have different connotations and there may be arguments in favor of each of these terms. In the print world, a book can only contain a single rendering, and thus a single choice must be made. The reader is left with that choice. Compromises will also need to be reached between literary flow and literal faithfulness. The translator makes this choice, and again the reader is stuck with it. Translators may try to mitigate this limitation by offering rationale for their decisions in introductions, including footnotes with alternate translations, or providing the original language term in parentheses, but a printed translation will always be very much a single rendering.

In the world of eBooks, things could be different. Instead of taking a foreign language work and producing a single rendering of it in the reader’s language, the translator could annotate the original work in order to provide data that could be used by different readers to render different versions of the work according to their individual criteria. Readers would be able to have their own bespoke translations.In this post, I use the bible as the primary example of a translated work. There are both technical and theatrical reasons to use the bible as our example. Firstly, if its various translations/editions are treated as a single book it is the best selling book of all time. Secondly, the bible is read and studied at a deeper level than most other books, as such translation decisions that would seem trivial in other cases are actively debated. The bible’s interpretation has been filled with political and religious controversy. Whether they intend to or not, its translators are arguably making a political and religious statement. Indeed, the first English translations of the bible altered the existing power structure in such a way that their mere existence was controversial and they were initially violently oppressed. Finally there are also some interesting technical aspects to bible translations: that are multiple source documents whose languages are no longer spoken, there is no living author to be consulted, and the source material is out of copyright.

An example of a biblical translation decision is the translation of the Hebrew יהוה. The Oxford Annotated Bible translates it as “The Lord”. In college, my religion professor disagreed with this translation and instead used the term “Yahweh” going so far as to say “Yahweh” when reading aloud even though the translation said “The Lord” on the printed page. Others have used “Jehovah”. Since a printed page can only contain a single term, he and his students were stuck with this rendering. Reading an alternate term was his only and somewhat Quixotic form of protest. Imagine instead that readers were free to choose whatever translation they desire — either one of the three terms above or something else of their own devising. If a book is electronic, there’s no reason an alternate term couldn’t be selected. ( See for more discussion of the translation of  יהוה.)

Other examples might include aesthetic and stylistic decisions such as modern vs. archaic pronouns i.e. ‘you’ vs ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and ‘your’ vs. ‘thine’ . Or the use of the phrase “become the father of” vs “begot”. The former uses modern conventional language while the latter is more concise and easier to read if used many times in the same paragraph. The decision to use archaic language (or not) is effectively a political and religious statement. The use of archaic language is a stylistic attempt to give the bible a status as an ancient and venerated text.

An interesting challenge of bible translations is that there’s no one authoritative original text. Different fragments come from different surviving documents. Translators must decide what source to use as the basis for the translation of a given passage if multiple sources contain it. However, if the translation is rendered electronically, readers could choose how different documents are weighted. For example, they might decide that the dead sea scrolls should be used where-ever possible or they might think the dead sea scrolls should be avoided.

Dynamic Translation for Other Works

Differing translations for a term is a common problem in many religious and philosophical texts. Sanskrit Śūnyatā though now usually translated as ‘emptiness’ was once translated as ‘void’ — a subtle but important difference that is thought to have led to confusion.

One decision that translators make is whether to use the original language terms instead of less exact translations. Scholars and serious connoisseurs are likely to prefer original language terms while the casual reader is likely to prefer translations. In the anime community Otaku ( often prefer fansubs to studio translations because they retain more Japanisms.  (A pet peeve of mine is movies that insist on translating the local currency into US dollars.)

Why not just have more print translations?

There are a few cases in which multiple print translations of a work exist. Though readers cannot create a bespoke translation, they can at least chose among the different static translations available. However, translating a work requires significant time and expertise. The number of different translations will always be limited. Additionally, with a copyrighted work, there may also be rights issues that limit the available translations. It is unlikely that a reader will find precisely the translation she’s looking for.

An objection is that readers do not want to make translation decisions. Indeed, many readers will happily accept a default rendering just as many users accept the default software settings. However, a set of translation decisions could be packaged by experts and shared with others. To make an analogy to web browsers, few users write their own add-ons but many use add-ons written by others.


E-books have the potential to change the nature of translations. The key is to effect a paradigm shift and shift power from the translator to the reader. Instead of being someone who produces a single rendering the translator would annotate the original word in such a way as to provide data. This data could then be used by the reader to create the precise rendering she desired.