Misc: April 2008 Archives


April 29, 2008

I'm currently working my way through Lolita (Appel annotated edition) and finding the annotation a bit heavy. Here's a not-so-randomly chosen but not-totally-unrepresentative page from the endonotes:
158/6 Christopher columbus' flagship: the zoo exists, in Evansville, Indiana. Its monkeys—kept out-of-doors on the ship from April to November—continue to be the zoo's most popular attraction.

158/7 Little Rock, near a school: rereading this passage in 1968, Nabokov called it "nicely prophetic" (the larger "row" over school desegregation, September 1957). For further "prophecy," see 226/3.

158/8 à propos de rien: French; not in relation to anything else; casually.

159/1 town... first name: "his" refers to Quilty, Clare, Michigan; an actual town.

159/2 species ... Homo pollex: H.H. combines the familiar Latin homo, "the genus of mammals consisting of mankind," with pollex, or "thumb."

159/3 viatic: H.H. sustains his "scientific" vocabulary; a coinage from the Latin root via. Viaticum is English—an allowance for travelling expenses—but H.H. has gone back to the Latin word viaticus, which specifically refers to the road.

159/4 priapically: from Priapus, the god of procreation.

159/6 man of my age...face à claques: Quilty, with "a face that deserves to be slapped; an ugly mischevious face." For an index to his appearances see 31/9.

159/6 concupiscence: lustfullness.

159/7 coulant un regard: French; casting a sly glance.

This is a bit less than one page of endnotes1 (I've omitted a note about Burma Shave2, and that reference XXX/Y means "note Y on page XXX", so this represents about half the notes on two pages of the text, since 158 has 5 notes which I haven't transcribed. You can of course ignore all these notes and just read the text, but if you're interested in a careful reading, you may well want to read them, with the concommitent risk of Wallacitis 3. The problem here is that while these notes are indicated in the text in the same way (with numbers in the margin), they're actually of quite different types:

  • 158/6 and 158/7 are sort of irrelevant asides that don't add much to the text.
  • 158/8 and 159/7 are translations from French.4
  • 159/1 and 159/6 indicate references to Clare Quilty of which there are a huge number.
  • 159/2 and 159/3 are translations from Latin.
  • 159/4 and 159/6 are simply explanations of English words you might have found difficult.

So, we have at least three categories: (1) translations of language you might find difficult (2) explanations of subtle allusions in the text [Quilty] and (3) more or less irrelevant asides that you might be interested in. If, for instance, you knew that reference 158/8 was just a translation from French, and you already knew what à propos de rien meant, you wouldn't need to go look it up in the endnotes at all, but as it is your reading flow is totally broken up while you flip to the back of the book.

The natural fix here is to have multiple types of annotation in the main text so you can tell at a glance what you're working with. Foster Wallace5 attacks this problem by using the notation IYI to indicate that a note is parenthetical, but this is not wholly satisfactory because the notation appears in the note and so your flow is already broken (though the fact that Wallace uses footnotes as opposed to endnotes does help). Given the exemplars above, we might do something like:

  • Translations/definitions: no notation but they're explained in notes if you flip to the back.
  • Subtle allusions: numbers as superscripts on the main text.6
  • Irrelevant asides: numbers in the margin.

The point of all this is to let you ignore the notes that you want to.7 This isn't wholly satisfactory, since we either have to intermix the allusions and asides at the end of the book (though of course you should be using footnotes) or have two separate sets of notes, both of which are clumsy (even if you have the allusions as footnotes instead of endnotes). Another possibility with a high enough note density is to put them on the facing page, but this chews up a lot of real estate if the note density is sufficiently low or highly variable.8

This is of course one of the cases where technology could really help. If you had an e-book, you could stop worrying about how the note text (as opposed to the indicator in the main text) was rendered. And if notes simply popped up when you selected them instead of taking the full context switch of a new page, you could minimize the flow interruption. Also, you could presumably program the e-book to display only notes you were interested in,9 while eliding the ones you don't care about. Of course, this would require there to be enough customers for e-books to bother giving them a treatment more sophisticated than just re-rendering the manuscript as it was typeset on the paper.

1. For more on endnotes see Rescorla 07
2. Famous for progressive road advertising signs, see 1925-1963.
3. After David Foster Wallace; observation due to Hovav Shacham.
4.159/6 is also a translation, but the primary purpose of the note is to point us at Quilty.
5. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity.
6. Given the particular nature of many of these allusions, it might make sense to mark Quilty references with a symbol rather than a number.
7. But of course this creates a hierarchy that's fixed in the text. This is sort of inherent in the fact that things are printed on paper, unless you want to have them printed in color/somehow plane polarize and wear filters on your glasses or something.
8. None of this applies to a book like Pale Fire where the notes are part of the text; Shacham again.
9. Note that you could also use colors, but many e-paper displays, such as the Kindle, don't have color displays, and since such a small fraction of the text will be color, this would add significantly to the cost of goods.


April 28, 2008

In the April 22 PNAS, Coates and Herbert report on a study of the correlation between testosterone/cortisol levels and performance by traders:
Little is known about the role of the endocrine system in financial risk taking. Here, we report the findings of a study in which we sampled, under real working conditions, endogenous steroids from a group of male traders in the City of London. We found that a trader's morning testosterone level predicts his day's profitability. We also found that a trader's cortisol rises with both the variance of his trading results and the volatility of the market. Our results suggest that higher testosterone may contribute to economic return, whereas cortisol is increased by risk. Our results point to a further possibility: testosterone and cortisol are known to have cognitive and behavioral effects, so if the acutely elevated steroids we observed were to persist or increase as volatility rises, they may shift risk preferences and even affect a trader's ability to engage in rational choice.

I don't have access to the paper (it's behind the PNAS paywall), so I don't know if they address the obvious correlation/causation issues. If it's just the case that better results result in increased testosterone levels, that's not very interesting.

What's more interesting is the suggestion that there's some set of cognitive enhancements that would make you a a better trader. One interesting question is whether these traders are outperforming the market (contra the efficient market hypothesis) or just themselves. Even more interesting would be the (implied) claim that performance increases because of more risk-taking behavior. As I understand it, the general on conventional gambling is that it's not really to your benefit to get more aggressive and/or risk-taking.


April 9, 2008

It's well known among authors, it's incredibly dangerous to look in your book once it's published—you're sure to find some embarassing error as soon as you open it. (Don't get me started about some of the errors in SSL and TLS). In that vein, I recently picked up Matthew Yglesias's, Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats. Yglesias is famous for writing quickly and having numerous typos, homonym mixups, etc. in his posts. Sure enough, I hadn't gotten past page xviii when I discovered he had misspelled the name of his roommate, Kriston Capps, except Yglesias spells it "Krison." It's reasonably interesting otherwise, though.

April 7, 2008

Went by the UPS store to mail something today. I had a prepaid shipping label so it was just a matter of slapping a pouch on the box and shoving in the label and dropping it off. Turns out they don't actually have pouches and they usually charge you a dollar to tape it on, though the clerk waived the fee. According to her "We're not UPS, though a lot of people think so." I can't imagine why anyone would think "The UPS Store" was UPS. As I understand the situation, The UPS Store is the new name for Mail Boxes etc., and they're franchised, which, I guess, is why they want to sell you supplies rather than give them to you for free like FedEx (and as I recall regular UPS locations) do.

April 6, 2008

A treasure trove of Tom Lehrer viseos.

More Tom Lehrer: Silent E and LY from the Electric company.

Chris Sharma doing the first ascent of Dreamcatcher, 5.14c/d in Squamish, BC.


April 5, 2008

Computerworld has a good article about hard drive failures. The bottom line here is that (unsurprisingly) real world drive failure rates far exceed the failure rates (MTBF and AFR) reported by manufacturers. This won't surprise anyone who has operated systems with a reasonable number of disks.

Fundamentally, though, what's annoying about disk drive failures isn't that they happen but that they're unpredictable. After all, the gas in my car keeps breaking—every three hundred miles or so I need to put more in—but that's not a big problem because I have a gauge that tells me when I need to refill the tank. If hard drives behaved the same way, you could just treat them as a consumable. The problem is that (as Pinheiro et al. report), disk drive failures are random and the SMART diagnostics don't provide reliable warning. Instead, you're left with failures as surprise events requiring emergency recovery. Even if you have backups, this kind of failure isn't fun, coming as it always seems to right when you're about to go home for the weekend.

The standard answer here is to use RAID and then swap the drives whenever one fails, but my experience (and that of other home users I've talked to) is that RAID systems fail to recover often enough on drive failure that you not infrequently end up with something that looks more like a backup and restore than an emergency replacement.