What We Are Reading

It’s a new year, and we are starting it off with a collection of articles that we’ve been collecting for the last couple of months. I hope you find them as interesting as we did. -Steven


Making Statistics Matter: Using Self-data to Improve Statistics Learning by Jeffrey L. Thayne. Can Quantified Self projects solve an ongoing problem in teaching statistics? This doctoral dissertation supervised by Victor Lee, a long time participant in our Quantified Self Public Health symposia, argues that it can. The reason QS can help is simple: in QS practices, statistics become personally relevant. As Thayne writes:

[A]n essential feature of effective statistics instruction [is] a relevant, immediately available context of application, wherein learners feel that they are taking part in an ongoing inquiry process in which statistics is being used as a tool for illuminating something new and important about their world.

What I found especially interesting about this research, which used qualitative methods to explore student’s interest and involvement in their statistics learning, was that the use of self-collected data was not powerful because it appealed to the student’s vanity, but because it was familiar and had contextual meaning. Just as professionals who use statistical methods benefit from understanding where the data comes from and what it is for, students who can situate their practice in a rich context find it easier to master new methods. -Gary

On Progress and Historical Change by Ada Palmer. Historian and science fiction author Ada Palmer’s lucid essay on the idea of historical progress is great to read in light of the never-dying hope among the makers of self-tracking tools that there can be a formula for positive change. I sometimes tire out my colleagues opposing this idea, and I know it seems odd that here at Quantified Self we spend every day supporting people trying to figure out how to use technology for change while at the same time not believing that definite techniques for inducing such change can exist. Isn’t that a contradiction? In contrast to my usual philosophical abstractions and pedantic references to the history of behavioral psychology, Palmer tells the story of where our idea of progress comes from, and offers a fascinating account of how events can be simultaneously free and determined, based on the DIY historical simulation machine she builds every year with her students. -Gary

How a Guy From A Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology by Ed Yong. One of my favorite stories in citizen science is how Beatrix Potter (of Peter Rabbit fame) was an early and ridiculed proponent of the idea that lichen was a symbiotic fusion of a fungi and an algae. The need for the term “symbiosis” arose from this discovery (credited to Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener). This article follows the humble beginnings of Toby Spribille and the process for how he determined that the theory that lichen is composed of two organisms is wrong. It’s actually three. -Steven

How To Do What You Want: Akrasia and Self-Binding by Daniel Reeves. I’ve been going back and reading some of Daniel Reeves’ excellent posts on the Beeminder Blog about the cluster of concepts and techniques associated with self-control, including also Smoking Sticks and Carrots and What is Willpower? -Gary

How Language Helps Erase the Tragedy of Millions of Road Deaths by Julie Sedivy. What is the difference between the words “accident” and “collision”? The word “accident” implies a lack of blame. This article explores the effects that these connotations have on our subconscious interpretation of the world. -Steven

Faster, Not Smarter: Does Caffeine Really Make You More Productive? by Alex Senemar. Alex surveys what is known about the effects of caffeine on productivity. How do you keep caffeine a boon and not a crutch. What I love about this article is that Alex finishes it with suggestions on how to run your own experiment to see caffeine’s effect on your productivity. -Steven

In Defense of Tracking Our Poop by Adam Butler. Adam makes the argument that one of the best ways to understand the health of the microbiome is to track and pay attention to your poop. How do you turn that into data? Luckily, there is a time-tested classification system that your physician should recognize called the Bristol Stool Scale. Which will help the next time you need to talk to your doctor. -Steven (courtesy of Ernesto Ramirez)

Childhood trauma leads to lifelong chronic illness — so why isn’t the medical community helping patients? by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. “Were there any childhood traumas or stressors that might have contributed to the extreme level of inflammation you’re experiencing as an adult?” Nakazawa says that this was the most important question posed to her in her adult life. From the question, she was able to untangle how her present day health issues have ties to the traumatic death of her father when she was twelve. The article shows that childhood trauma leads to a great likelihood of autoimmune disease. However, knowing about these links, one can help reduce the number of doctor visits. -Steven

Early Modern Bookkeeping and Life-Writing Revisited: Accounting for Richard Stonley, by Jason Scott-Warren. The use of numbers as an element in personal record keeping is ancient, but the account books of early modern elites hold particular interest for historians, since they seem to hold clues to the origin of today’s autobiographical habits. The great 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys kept his entries in a ledger book, and the carefully folded pages and ruled lines of the account books of bourgeois merchants and lawyers provide a dense cultural background for more famous documents (such as Benjamin Franklin’s memoirs) commonly imagined to to lie at the root of the Quantified Self. This essay from The Social History of the Archive (a special volume of the journal Past & Present) takes a close look at the account book of an obscure functionary named Richard Stonley, and shows how mistakes, repetitions, and elisions challenge the idea of the ledger book as a crucible for the modern sense of self. -Gary


How Software, Data, and a Hell of a Lot of Work Helped Me Lose 110 pounds in 25 Months by Timothy Chambers. Although he doesn’t show his data, it was interesting to read how Timothy integrated various tools into his effort to lose weight. Each tool had a role and each needed certain features to qualify. It’s a complex interaction of data sets and feedback mechanisms. I appreciated one of his points on data portability:

It was critical that my apps could speak to each other and to the cloud, not just to what companies each toolmaker had deals with. My web-based trend tools needed to talk with my scale which needed to speak to my phone. We work so hard for the health data about steps, weight, fat percentage, etc, that should be our data open to use with whatever tools we wish. Not all vendors treat it as such.


My to-do list is now public, and it’s the most useful thing I’ve done in years by Joe Reddington. For years, Joe has kept track his number of open to-do’s. In May, he experimented with making his to-do list publicly available. Now that he knows that he’s being “watched”, he is more conscientious about making his items comprehensible, and is  more motivated. As Joe puts it: “When it was [just] a list for me, it looked great; when I decided to make it public, it instantly looked very poor.” -Steven

Analysis of a Personal Public Talk by Alex Martinelli. Alex analyzes a recent talk he gave at a QS Dublin meetup, by looking at his heart rate and speaking speed. The piece has an appropriately casual tone, but he finishes each section of the analysis with a definitive statement based on the data. After looking at how fast he was talking, Alex writes as if he was consulting someone else:

Your average speech rate is 152 Words Per Minute (WPM), but an approximately constant and significant decrease can be observed, bringing you from an initial WPM of 166 to a final value of 142. The primary cause of this is the usage of increasingly longer pauses between words, secondarily reinforced by a combination of using longer words, as well as a tendency to slow down the pronunciation of words, while the talk unfolds.”

As an engineer at IBM, he’s clearly used to this at his job, but I like the idea of bringing this structure and formality to personal data analysis. -Steven

The Somniloquist by Adam Rosenberg. Adam was told by others that he talks in his sleep, so he set up a recorder to capture his “midnight monologues”. The recordings are transcribed, and in addition to being hilarious, they are an interesting insight into what the brain is doing during sleep. -Steven

My Quantified Wardrobe 2017 by Matt Manhattan. Matt analyzes his wardrobe in an effort to define his relationship with his clothes. He looks at how much of each article of clothing he has and their associated cost. But it’s the pictures of his clothes that makes this post delightful. -Steven

Data Visualizations

History Lesson by Clive Thompson. Not a visualization, but an article about the history of data visualizations. -Steven

The London Wind Map. A whimsical of visualization of where you would go if “you were pushed by the wind each day” in 2015. -Steven


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