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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SF Bay Area Meetup Recap

On November 17th, the Bay Area and SF Meetup groups hosted QS Show&Tell talks at WeWork Mid-Market. Thank you to everybody who came and presented. We saw some brilliant talks, including one about tracking during pregnancy with data challenging common, supposedly scientific pregnancy advice, and a talk outlining a fascinating self-study of bruxism (teeth grinding) based on a DIY wearable sensor to capture muscle tension and an infrared camera filming all night. We also had a crew from National Geographic documenting the evening for a short show they are making about Quantified Self. Here are links to some of the talks!

1. Erica Forazni “Tracking Pregnancy and Baby Growth”
2. Mark Moschel, “Tracking Ketones”
3. Peter Kuhar, “Tracking my Bruxism”
4. Tahl Milburn, “Quantifying My Mental and Experiential State”

Mark your calendar for our next All Bay Area QS Meetup on January 26th, 2017 at the Wells Fargo Room located at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Just let us know when you sign up if you want to present.

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QS17: Join us June 17-18 in Amsterdam


We’ve been working for many months to organize our next Quantified Self conference, and now we’re ready to open QS17 for registration. We’re going to Amsterdam, and we hope you’ll join us.

QS17: The Quantified Self Conference - Register

This will be the fourth time we’ve held the conference in Amsterdam at our favorite venue just outside the Amsterdam city center. Those of you who have already been to a QS conference here will understand why: This calm, beautiful, and extremely well located hotel, just a short walk from the canal ring, is a perfect place to work together and learn from each other.

QS17 is what we call a “Carefully Curated Unconference.” We’ll have over 100 individual sessions, all of which are proposed and lead by conference attendees. We work closely with all the participants in advance, based on what we know of your projects, work and interests. The final program lineup is released a few days before the event. So please let us know what you’re working on when you register.

Due to the  size of the venue, attendance is strictly limited to 350 people. The first hundred people to register can sign up for €250 for the two day conference. So please don’t delay.

See you in June!

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Ahnjili Zhuparris: Menstrual Cycles, 50 Cent, and Right Swipes


“I love reading random papers about the human body.”

Ahnjili Zhuparris came across a study on the menstrual cycle’s influence on cognition and emotion and was curious to see how hormonal changes may affect her day-to-day behavior. She figured her internet use may be a convenient and easy data set to assemble and examine for this effect. Using a few chrome plugins, Ahnjili was able to see not only where she spent her time online, but how she interacted with sites like Facebook and Youtube.

Her analysis yielded some interesting patterns. She found the most distinctive behaviors occurred during the fertile window, a span of about six days in the menstrual cycle when the body is most ready for conception. Looking at her shopping data from a clothing website:

 ”I found that there was no change in the amount of money I spent or the amount of time I shopped online… but while I was most fertile, I bought more red items. In fact, it was the only time I bought red items.”

In this talk, Ahnjili shows the differences in how she browsed Facebook, swiped in Tinder, and listened to music on YouTube.

Here are a few of the tools and papers that Ahnjili cites in her talk:

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Meetups This Week

We have three great Quantified Self Meetups occurring this week. Seattle’s talk topics include failing, music listening habits, and personal analytics. Bogotá will be discussing productivity tracking. And the Tokyo group will allow everyone to give a short 3-5 min Show&Tell on what they’ve been working on.

To see when the next meetup in your area is, check the full list of the over 100 QS meetup groups in the right sidebar. Don’t see one near you? Why not start your own! If you are a QS Organizer and want some ideas for your next meetup, check out the myriad of meetup formats that other QS organizers are using here.

Thursday, October 6
Seattle, Washington
Bogotá, Colombia

Saturday, October 8
Tokyo, Japan

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N-of-1- Our Call for Papers

We recently announced that we’re collaborating several other editors to edit a special “focus theme” on N-of-1 experiments for the established informatics journal, Methods of Information in Medicine.

N-of-1 Call For Papers (PDF)

Here’s an extract from our justification for the call:

Scientific progress in medicine and public health during the last century has been dominated by studies performed with groups of people. Today many people collect data their own data to help investigate a health problem, make progress towards a goal, or simply because we are curious. Such investigations need not be conducted on groups. Often, they involve just a single person who is both the subject and the investigator. They are “N-of-1” trials, where data are generated by the individual, normally making use of self-quantification systems, including mobile apps and portable monitoring devices. This focus theme of “Methods of Information in Medicine” on single subject research encourages submission of original articles describing data processing and research methods using a “N-of-1” design where the questions and analysis are guided by the interests and participation of the subject. We encourage submissions that focus on challenges and questions involving data collection, processing, integration, analysis and visualization in the context of single subject research. 


Personal health and well-being * Chronic disease management * Mental health * Autonomous self-experimentation in the context of health and well-being * Health education and autodidactic learning * Privacy, ethics and regulation issues 

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Randy Sargent: Unlocking Patterns with Spectrograms


In this talk, Randy Sargent shows how he used a spectrogram, a tool mostly used for audio, to better understand his own biometric data. A spectrogram was preferable to a line graph for its ability to visualize a large number of data points. As Randy points out, an eeg sensor can produce 100 million data points per day. It is unusual for a person to wear an eeg  sensor for that long, but Randy used the spectrogram on his heart rate variability data that was captured during a night of sleep. In the video, you’ll see an interesting pattern that he discovered that occurs during his REM sleep.

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Richard Sprague: Microbiome Gut Cleanse

2 Richard Sprague - Microbiome GutCleanse.001


Richard Sprague has been closely tracking his microbiome and sharing his findings for the last couple of years. He’s even joined our friends at uBiome as their citizen-scientist-in-residence.

In this talk, Richard shares his attempt to improve his sleep quality by increasing the amount of bifidobacterium in his gut through eating potato starch. You’ll learn why he took the extreme step of flushing his digestive tract and rebuilding it from scratch.

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Meetups This Week

I haven’t been doing these for awhile, but that does not mean that Quantified Self meetups have not been occurring. Far from it. If you are in the Washington D.C. area, there is a meetup on Friday, September 9th with presentations on using data to personalize one’s fitness regimen and how to use heart rate and EMG measurements to detect one’s sleep stage.

To see when the next meetup in your area is, check the full list of the over 100 QS meetup groups in the right sidebar or you can search for “Quantified Self” on meetup.com. Don’t see one near you? Why not start your own! If you are a QS Organizer and want some ideas for your next meetup, check out the myriad of meetup formats that other QS organizers are using here.

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What We Are Reading

Stealth Research and Theranos: Reflections and Update 1 Year Later by John P. A. Ioannidis. This important and interesting “Viewpoint” article from JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association recounts the author’s first notice of Theranos and glancing involvement with the company’s publicity campaign. This leads Ioannidis, whose critical work on the validity of published research is essential reading, to offer some higher level criticism of the notion of widespread medical testing. Ioannidis’ critique draws attention to the fact that simply increasing the accessibility of diagnostic tests could be harmful, if the result is to expose people to more dangerous, costly, and unnecessary medical treatment. My take on Ioannidis critique is that changing the cultural context of testing is essential for the technological tools to be at all beneficial. For those of us who keenly desire more inexpensive and convenient blood tests, the failure of Theranos is very disappointing. However, if these tests are just treated as a kind of “look up table” linked to current knowledge and treatment protocols, they could well do more harm than good. -Gary

Smartphones won’t make your kids dumb. We think by Olivia Solon. The subject of children and screen time is hard to approach without bias. My own experience of watching my attention span get shredded to ribbons after smartphones were introduced (even though I was past the age where my brain was supposedly fully-formed) makes me feel apprehensive about the effect screen-based activities have on our brains’ reward systems. This article is particularly diligent about wading through the many aspects of this topic with the appropriate amount of trepidation and uncertainty. One thing we’ve learned from watching QS talks about distraction is that we may be more vulnerable to screen compulsion that we’re typically aware. For a poignant example, look at Robby Macdonnell’s superb QS Show&Tell talk: The Data is In, I’m a Distracted Driver. With more self-collected evidence, the worries described by Olivia Solon might be easier to evaluate. -Steven

The Challenge Of Taking Health Apps Beyond The Well-Heeled by Barbara Feder Ostrov. “There is a disconnect between the problems of those who need the most help and the tech solutions they are being offered,” so says Veenu Aulakh, the director of a nonprofit that improves healthcare for underserved patients. At the QS Public Health Symposium in May, we had an excellent session on this topic, titled “Learning About Collaboration in Community Science From from Youth Leaders in the Klamath Basin.” Driving our own research is the idea that toolmakers with positions of privilege could focus less on the design of apps to help “them” and more on listening to community leaders whose long term engagement in health issues gives them a deeper understanding of what’s useful. -Steven

How we built our Quantified Self Chatbot with Instant 4.0, by Shashwat Pradhan. For anybody thinking about building personal dashboard apps that use the native smartphone self-tracking affordances in Android and iOS, Shashwat Pradhan’s project is worth following. Pradhan is also on the QS Forum answering questions from users. -Gary

Show & Tell

40 — Mind the loops by Buster Benson. Here is an annual review, looking at his life at the age of 40, by one of the most insightful self-trackers and toolmakers in the QS community (Many of us use Buster’s 750 words for our daily journaling). -Steven

A Lifetime of Personal Data by Shannon Conners. Shannon’s workout and food journals date back to her high school years. Once digital tools were at her disposal, the diligence that she brought to her tracking has led to some amazing visualizations. -Steven

20 Years of Memories Tucked Away in Personal Finance Data by Peter Torelli. Peter tracked his finances for 20 years, and unintentionally, kept a record of the vicissitudes of his life. -Steven

Data Visualizations

Patternicity: Dreamy Diagrams and Lyrical Visualizations of the Eccentric Details of Daily Life in the City by Maria Popova. For a class, Yasemin Uyar took on the task of visualizing the minutiae of life around her for 100 days. The result is a series of dreamy and idiosyncratic takes on data visualization. The images don’t necessarily reveal the hidden patterns underlying daily life, but rather serve as a vehicle for paying attention, making the argument that merely paying attention can be a noble end, in of itself (as opposed to “hacking” to get a personal advantage). -Steven


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Connected World: Untangling the Air Traffic Network by Martin Grandjean. A network visualization exercise, Martin wanted to see how to visualize all the connections between airports that makes reference to geography, but is not constrained by it (Here is an animation of the difference). For instance, a geography-constrained map would leave Europe to be an indecipherable blob of data points. The wisdom of effective visualization lies in arranging data so that otherwise hidden connections can be found. In this case, Martin discovers that “India is more connected to the Middle East than to South and East Asia. The Russian cluster is very visible, connecting airports in Russia but also in many former Soviet republics. Latin america is clearly divided between a South cluster and a Central American cluster very connected with the U.S.” -Steven


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Unraveling Spiral by Jason Samenow. This animation shows the alarming trend of average global temperatures over time and is the best use of a spiral graph that I’ve seen. -Steven


image (8)Thinking Machine 6. This is a chess game where you, as the player, can see the AI of the opponent evaluate its possible moves in real time. It’s more engaging than I expected. Especially gratifying is when you’ve put the computer into a difficult position and watch it take more time to evaluate thousands of moves to get out of the bind. I don’t think I’ve ever tried as hard to get into the head of a non-living opponent. -Steven

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