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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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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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What We Are Reading


Taking 5: Work-Breaks, Productivity, and Opportunities for Personal Informatics for Knowledge Workers
By “approaching the question of break-taking objectives from a personal rather than an organizational angle” Daniel A. Epstein, Daniel Avrahami, and Jacob T. Biehl open a very interesting new set of questions to Quantified Self trackers and experimenters. The necessity of mental and physical renewal to work is well known and yet largely ignored. This paper, while preliminary and speculative, does us the service of challenging conventional wisdom about work breaks, showing that there is no simple definition for what activities count as breaks. -Gary

Why Talented Black and Hispanic Students Can Go Undiscovered by Susan Dynarski. Interesting article about how objective IQ testing of students for the gifted program in a Florida school district resulted in greater racial diversity. This contradicts the notion that IQ tests are biased against some groups and is a frightening indictment of teacher referral-based enrollment. -Steven

Social Network Algorithms Are Distorting Reality By Boosting Conspiracy Theories by Renee Diresta. In the battle to command our attention, media (and apps) have become like an evolving, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, finding new ways to manipulate our emotions and hijack our reward systems. The way information is presented by many online services preys on our biases, creating a new challenge for us as individuals to design our own experiences with the world to blunt the raw toxicity that is currently out there. But how do you do that in such a way that helps you become a better person, rather than creating your own, insulated bubble? -Steven

Who Will Debunk The Debunkers? by Daniel Engber. When a skeptic debunks a popular myth, it is usually accompanied by some story about how it actually happened, and how the myth spread. However, the same scrutiny is not often paid to this new story and is spread with the same lax attitude to veracity, as long as it comes from a solid-sounding source. As Daniel puts it, “It seems plausible that the tellers of these tales are getting blinkered by their own feelings of superiority — that the mere act of busting myths makes them more susceptible to spreading them.” -Steven

How maggots made it back into mainstream medicine by Carrie Arnold. According to the article, the use of maggots to clean wounds was gaining traction in the early 20th century. The practice was thrown out with the discovery of penicillin and the promise of a cleaner form of antibiotics. As bacteria have become more resistant to antibiotics, this “historical backwater” treatment is being looked at again. It’s assumed that patients would be put off by the “ick” factor, but the real barrier seems to be physcians. According to one nurse investigator: “Some care providers see it as ancient. ‘That’s old fashioned and ancient and we’re doing evidence-based practice’, which in their minds means new. But they’re not looking at the evidence behind larval debridement therapy, which there’s a lot of.” -Steven

How Information Graphics Reveal Your Brain’s Blind Spots by Lena Groeger. This is a great overview of the different tools that data visualizations can employ to help you understand a concept better and overcome some of your cognitive biases (or exploit them). -Steven


Mimicking the Fasting Mimicking Diet by Bob Troia. This is a fantastic experiment where Bob tests for himself a caloric restriction strategy where by “cutting daily calories in half for just four days every two weeks reduced biomarkers for aging, diabetes, heart disease and cancer with no adverse effects. FMD was tested on yeast, mice, and humans and the results remained consistent among all three groups.” Bob does a great job of tracking the effect the diet has on various bio-markers, showing the results visually and sharing his data. -Steven

Crying by Robin Weis is a deeply reflective self-tracking project that explores 589 days of crying data. Robin tracked every incident of crying over about a year and half, measuring and annotating 394 cries on 216 days. There is one day with 14 cries, and the longest stretch without crying is 23 days. Robin’s report from the project has many other analytic dimensions, which she uses to anchor elements of autobiography: change in in ways she handled family stress, a long stretch of travel, and an increase in awareness of injustice linked to becoming a feminist. She uses a relatively fine grained vocabulary of emotion to categories the cries. After all, as she point out: Not all cries are made equal. Some consist of a stray melancholic tear, and some consist of unstoppable laughter. Some represent the deep, achy detachment of a piece of your identity, and some can only be onset by too much hot pepper. Whatever the provocation, as soon as any emotion or sensation crosses some intensity threshold, it seems to manifest itself by physically leaking out of one’s eyes. And if that wasn’t strange enough, the thresholds appear to be drastically different across people and stimuli. What in the actual what?

Data Visualizations

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Britain’s Diet in Data. Interesting interactive visualization that shows changes in British diets over the past 40 years. -Steven


image (3) Semantic Maps in the Brain. This is an incredible project where some researchers used an fMRI machine to map which parts of the brain showed increased activity in response to individual words while listening to the Moth Radio Hour. They then took that data and constructed a 3d-model and interactive visualization that allows you to select a spot in the brain and see which words are most likely to get a response from that area based on their predictive model. This page allows you to explore the semantic map of an individual. My understanding is that where we store information in our neocortex is individualistic. I wonder how much overlap you see across different people. -Steven

image (5) Ship Map. A beautiful interactive map of global shipping routes, but what sets it apart for me is the narration that introduces you to the visualization. Rather than show a video clip, it zooms around the interactive. -Steven

image (6)The Year that Music Died. This is a fun visualization that is a moving timeline of the top 5 songs on the Billboard charts from the past 60 years. As it moves through time, it will play a snippet of the song that was in the #1 spot at the time. For a bout of nostalgia, navigate to the years that you were in your early teens. -Steven

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What We Are Reading


The Anecdote is the Antidote for What Ails Modern Medical Science by John R. Adler, Jr. M.D. It’s hard to imagine anybody being more of a medical insider than Dr. John R. Adler, the founding editor of Cureus. Adler has a Harvard medical degree, served his residency at Massachusetts General hospital, and is a Stanford professor of neurosurgery, as well as founding CEO of a leading radiation oncology company, Accuray.  This makes it especially heartening that Dr. Adler is now focused on opening up medical research literature to important kinds of evidence that have often been ignored: the anecdote and the case report.  Quote: “The altruism that is supposed to drive the publication of scientific research has been almost entirely co-opted by the peculiar needs of academic promotion and tenure, as well as the pecuniary demands of the scholarly publishing industry; the public good of medical knowledge has been reduced to a mere after-thought by both academia and the publishing industry.” -Gary

You can train your body into thinking it’s had medicine by Jo Marchant. There is an experimental treatment where the patients always drink from a uniquely flavored beverage every time they take their medicine. After a while, the drug is taken away, but the drink is still consumed. Amazingly, the body continues to act like it received the drug. Considering that many of these drugs have terrible side effects, these findings can impact how medication is administered. -Steven

Fleming’s discovery of penicillin couldn’t get published today. That’s a huge problem by Julia Belluz. John Adler’s reflections on the value of anecdote, linked above, were inspired by this essay by Julia Belluz celebrating the creation of another new journal, called Matters, devoted to publishing reports of small scale experiments and observations. As the publishers write on their web site: “Observations, not stories, are the pillars of good science. Today’s journals however, favor story-telling over observations, and congruency over complexity. As a consequence, there is a pressure to tell only good stories. Moreover, incentives associated with publishing in high-impact journals lead to loss of scientifically and ethically sound observations that do not fit the storyline, and in some unfortunate cases also to fraudulence. The resulting non-communication of data and irreproducibility not only delays scientific progress, but also negatively affects society as a whole.” -Gary

Machine Learning for Easier Dieting by Samuel K. Moore.

“I had a half-cup of oatmeal, with two-tablesoons of maple syrup and a cup of coffee. Oh, I put a handful of blueberries in the oatmeal, and there was milk in the coffee. It was skim milk.”

It would be wonderful to log one’s food by speaking to your tracker in this natural manner. Machine learning may make it possible, but this article reviews some of the obstacles that need to be overcome when it comes to parsing speech. -Steven

A Case of Complete and Durable Molecular Remission of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Following Treatment with Epigallocatechin-3-gallate, an Extract of Green Tea by Dawn Lemanne, Keith I. Block, Bruce R. Kressel, Vikas P. Sukhatme, Jeffrey D. White. This paper from Cureus about a notable clinical outcome offers an excellent example of the kind of research that might never come to light without the work of pioneering science publishers. -Gary

This Dude’s Fitness Tracker May Have Just Saved His Life by George Dvorsky. When a 42-year-old man recently went to the emergency room following a seizure, the doctors had to make a decision in how to proceed that depended on whether the man’s arrhythmia was caused by the seizure or was chronic. The answer was found in the man’s Fitbit data. -Steven


How Can I Stop Feeling Cold by Justin Timmer. A few years ago, I spent a winter wearing only a t-shirt when I went out. I was interested in how my body adapted to the cold over time. I am happy to see Justin attempt a similar thing but with more rigor. -Steven

Letter of Recommendation: Segmented Sleep by Jesse Barron. I’ve been long fascinated by the concept of segmented sleep, where people have a first and second sleep period during the night. I’ve read historical references of this phenomenon, but not many experiences from now. -Steven

Leave that Thermostat Alone! by Michael VanDaniker. Taking advantage of the ability to export his data from his electric provider, Michael compared his electricity usage against the outside temperature to get a better understanding of his electricity use (and created some nice visualizations in the process). -Steven

Resource: Home Hacking Blood Glucose by Jenny Horner. Jenny heard about a study in Israel that showed that post-meal blood sugar spikes differ highly according to the individual. For example, ice cream is fine for some, but sushi is not. Jenny decided to apply the findings to her life. She shares the method she is using to construct her own personal glycemic index. ‑Steven

Personal Information Manager by Fabian Benetou. Fabian’s site is a fascinating mind dump of many aspects of his life. Open to all, but comprehensible only to him, there is a voyeuristic pleasure in traipsing around and seeing a glimpse into someone else’s head (another fun example is Jerry Michalski’s “Brain”). In particular, I love seeing the notes that he keeps from the books he reads, which dovetails with my interest in commonplace books‑Steven

Data Visualizations


Arbor Ludi“Un proyecto de visualización de datos compuesto por una serie de representaciones gráficas que reconstruyen el árbol de juego de ocho de los mejores ajedrecistas de la historia.” Each image in this beautiful and fascinating series of data visualizations represent the playing life of a chess master. Created by the design and architecture firm Ootro Estudio, the portraits are made out of data from every move from hundreds or thousands of published games (the number varies significantly between masters). The coral-like shape emerges from the fact that in chess the first moves are common and well known, while later moves inhabit a vast possibility space. For more on the technique, see this informative post on The Zugzwang Blog: Arbor Ludi: arquitectura mental de un genio del ajedrez. (In Spanish.) -Gary


All Those New Dinosaurs May Not Be New — Or Dinosaurs by Maggie Koerth-Baker. My first experience of the messiness of paleontology is when I learned that my mug with a green brontosaurus depicted an animal that never existed (though that may no longer be true). This chart shows how often a dinosaur genus is later declared to be invalid. The error rate for dinosaurs named between 1850 and 1980 is 48 percent! -Steven


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Changing river path seen through satellite images by Zoltan Sylvester. Using Landsat images, this is a time lapse that shows, over a thirty year period, the oxbow section of the Ucayali river in Peru get pinched and then cut off from the main flow of the river. You can view thirty year timelapses like this for any location on earth at the Google Earth Engine. The Las Vegas one is an incredible example of urban expansion. -Steven

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What We Are Reading


The Beacon Experiments: Low-Energy Bluetooth Devices in Action by Chaise Hocking. There is a lot of interest in using micro-location to support QS projects, with much excitement focused on Bluetooth beacons as a possible solution. If you’ve been curious about how well the fairly well known Estimote and Kontakt beacons work for estimating proximity, this post is for you. ‑Gary

Do-It-Yourself Medical Devices — Technology and Empowerment in American Health Care by Jeremy A. Greene. DIY healthcare technology has existed a lot longer than the devices designed to pair with your smartphone, but the “it” in DIY, as well as whom “yourself” is directed towards, has changed significantly over time. ‑Steven

Boundary Negotiating Artifacts in Personal Informatics: Patient-Provider Collaboration with Patient-Generated Data by Chia-Fang Chung et al. This sensitive research paper explores how self-collected data can be used to support collaboration between people seeking health care and their care providers. Based on surveys and interviews, Chung and her co-authors offer a detailed analytical framework for understanding common tensions and misunderstandings, and give extremely thoughtful suggestions for designers. ‑Gary

‘Superman Memory Crystal’ Could Store Data for 13.8 Billion Years by Stephanie Pappas. It’s probably foolish to get excited by a technology that may never escape the research facility, but I’m excited by the idea anyhow. The challenge of keeping data from degrading is a big one. Libraries burn down. Magnetic tapes disintegrate. Hard drives die suddenly. The idea of storing your data on a glass disc is poetically appealing, but I am surprised to learn of it’s practicality in terms of stability and capacity.‑Steven

The Most Famous Mice in the World Right Now by Steve Hamley. I’ve been following the slow transformation of nutritional science from anti-fat to anti-carb since reading Gary Taubes cover story for the New York Times: “What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie?” This week there was a minor chapter in which many media reports used some work by a New Zealand scientist purporting to show that high fat, low carb diets could be bad for your glycemic control after all. The above story by Steve Hamley is the best debunking. ‑Gary

Ann Douglas Details Her Hi-tech Weight Loss Journey by Lauren Pelley. Ann Douglas, an author of books on parenting and pregnancy, lost 135 pounds over two years. She didn’t have one killer device or app, but used a suite of tools that contributed in one way or another. “I had given up all hope of ever losing all this weight,” she says. “If you’re sitting there despairing, wondering how you’re ever going to do anything about your weight problem — I was there too.” ‑Steven


Using Heart Rate Variability to Analyze Stress in Conversation by Paul LaFontaine. “Vapor lock” is Paul’s term for that feeling when you are trying to retrieve something from memory in conversation, but because of the stress of the situation (especially if it is with a boss), you lock up and your recall fails. To better understand this phenomenon and learn how to prevent it, Paul measured his heart rate variability during 154 conversations with bosses and co-workers and discovered that the biggest cause of his “vapor lock” was not what he expected at all. ‑Steven

17 Years of Location Tracking by Stephen Cartwright. Steven has been tracking his latitude, longitude and elevation every hour since 1999. In this talk, Stephen shows how seventeen years of location tracking has given him a wealth of data to explore in the form of three-dimensional data visualization sculptures. He has even brought some of these to QS conferences. They are amazing to behold in person. ‑Steven 

Data Visualizations


Marrying Age: This is when Americans get married by Nathan Yau. This interactive visualization looks at the average marrying age for different demographics. You can’t see the trends over time, but it is interesting, though not wholly surprising, to see smoother distributions for demographics that tend to have more stabile economic situations, like college graduates. (Though I’m not sure if that has more to do with the relative number of people in each group.) ‑Steven


Forget me nots by Lam Thuy Vo. This explores the relationship between a woman and her archive of email exchanges with exes. This visualization above is fairly standard, but the others in the piece are more like tone poems. Appropriate, considering that dives into your archive can leave you swirling in unleashed emotion (Speaking from personal experience here. You would be surprised by how much you can relive your life by looking at old bank statements). ‑Steven


Danielle by Anthony Cerniello. This is a video of a computer generated face that ages over the course of four minutes. The length is interesting in that you can tell that change is occurring, yet it is happening slow enough that it’s hard to see exactly what is changing moment to moment. ‑Steven

Thanks to Ernesto for sending a link our way. If you find an interesting article you’d like to recommend, email labs@quantifiedself.com. If you want to get these automatically in your inbox, you can subscribe here.

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What We Are Reading



This Scientist Is Turning Every Element In the Periodic Table Into Music by Jennifer Ouellette. We have seen Randy Sargent analyze his heart rate variability with a spectogram, a tool normally used for visualizing sound. This project is perhaps the inverse, turning the molecular structure of elements into audible tones. Surprisingly, “sonification” is becoming a useful analytical tool in materials science. Here’s the sound of silicon. -Steven

Building a Better Tracker: Older Consumers Weigh In On Activity and Sleep Monitoring Devices. (PDF) This study by the Georgia Home Lab that explored the value of self-tracking for people over 50. The researchers enrolled 92 participants and set them up with seven different activity trackers, then followed them for a six week period. While participants tended to believe that self-tracking could be valuable, most of them did not learn much of interest, and reason is telling: the lessons provided by the trackers were too general. “Participants who did not find the devices to be useful said that they wanted more data related to their specific conditions and that they wanted notification if the data indicated something of concern. More sensors relevant to health conditions was the most common suggestion for improvement.” -Gary

If You Want Life Insurance, Think Twice Before Getting A Genetic Test by Christina Farr and Cops are asking Ancestry.com and 23andMe for their customers’ DNA by Kashmir Hill. I’m filing both of these stories under “Ways your data can be used against you.” -Steven 

BMI Is A Terrible Measure Of Health: But we keep using it anyway by Katherine Hobson. It’s not news for me that BMI is a terrible metric. But if BMI is not a good proxy for health, what metric is out there that is better and as easy to measure? This article looks at mid-section measurements as a candidate. -Steven

Your Letters Helped Challenger Shuttle Engineer Shed 30 Years Of Guilt by Howard Berkes. This is a short piece, but it touches on themes of data-based arguments, courage, guilt, and self-forgiveness. -Steven


Know Thy Cycle, Know Thyself by Ilyse Magy. Using the Fertility Awareness Method and Kindara, Ilyse diagnosed a previously unnoticed vitamin deficiency that had a huge effect on her wellbeing, as well as gained other important insights into cyclical dimensions of her health and wellbeing. ”Once I started charting, I was pretty amazed by what I was learning, but also kind of mad that no one had ever told me this stuff before.” -Gary

Why I Weighed My Whiskers by John Cousins. Inspired by an anecdote about a man’s beard growth while working on a remote island, Jon explores whether there is a relationship between his mood and facial hair. Yes, you read that right. -Steven

Stoic Self-Tracking by Alberto Frigo. One of the most consistently interesting chronicles of a self-tracking life is Morris Villarroel’s shadow of the stream, where he writes on his ongoing, multi-year life-logging projects, about which he’s given several excellent conference talks. But this week Morris turned over his blog to another deeply reflective self-tracker, the artist Alberto Frigo, whose self-tracking practice includes photographing everything he picks up in his right hand. In this post, Alberto revives an old word – operosity – in describing the worthy laboriousness of self-care. -Gary

Excerpt from Alberto’s piece:

On a bus from the Venice airport to the mountains where I am now restoring an abandoned barn to deposit my life-work, I was reading Seneca. I was reading it for different reasons; in the first place, it was what an old professor of mine  quoted when he decided to give up his inspiring career and retire to a small barn near the town the bus was passing. Secondly, reading Seneca was like a counter-reaction to all the Anglo-Saxon stuff one is forced to refer to in today’s humanities. Thirdly, Seneca has often been quite superficially pointed out as one of the first persons to quantify himself.

Basis Breakdown. This an interesting take on a weekly journal, combining Basis Peak stats with daily reflections. -Steven

Data Visualizations



A Day in the Life of Americans by Nathan Yau. This visualization is a timelapse showing how Americans spend their day, based on the Bureau of Labor’s American Time Use Study. It would like to see a similar visualization, but for a single person with each dot representing a different date. -Steven



Codeology. This project takes code from github and represents them with an odd combination of 3D and ASCII text to create organic seeming shapes. After looking at a couple dozen of these, I wanted to see the shapes interact with each other. Arena fight, perhaps? -Steven



The Potential for the Most Liberal Supreme Court in Decades by Alicia Parlapiano and Margo Sanger-Katz. This excellent visualization uses Martin-Quinn scores to show the ideological leanings of Supreme Court justices’ rulings by year. More importantly, by highlighting the relative liberal or conservatism of the justice who sits in the ideological median, it shows how the character of the court has shifted through the years. -Steven

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What We Are Reading

A plate from "Food-Data" by artist Tobias Zimmer

A plate from “Food-Data” by artist Tobias Zimmer


Tobias Zimmer tracked what he ate and, in particular, what he didn’t eat. The image above comes from a series of ceramic plates that were created using generated graphics based on the crumbs he left. For more, see his Tumblr: Food-Data:

»Food Data« elevates an everyday occurrence to the realms of art. Minimalistic crumb compositions that emerge while eating every day, are enhanced by generated graphics, which refer to the topic of computerized data tracking of human behavior. The final plates encourage to contemplate on everyday life and to find beauty in daily routines, but at the same time remind of technological advancement and practices of (self-)surveillance, that doesn‘t even stop before the private ritual of eating.


Haunted By Data by Maciej Cegłowski. A keen sense of how things can go wrong is needed if we are to have any hope of – well, if we are to have any hope! This essay by Maciej Ceglowski about the highly toxic nature of large scale data aggregation is highly recommended.

How Your Device Knows Your Life through Images by Graham Templeton.  This research demonstrating that an artificial neural network was able to train itself to correctly identify 83% of the time the activity that a person was engaged, just based on the images collected from that person’s lifelogging camera is especially interesting in light of Ceglowski’s talk.


Life Stress by Marco Altini. Marco reviews an exhilarating but stressful 15 months of his life through the lens of heart rate variability.

Body Metrics Under Stress by Justin Lawler. Another stress-related piece. Justin shows through data how his body responded to the stress of giving a talk about his lifelogging experiences at QSEU15.


Pathways Project by Mimi Onuoha. This project looked at what story could be told from a month’s worth of mobile phone data from four groups of people, each with a different type of relationship: co-workers, a couple, a family, and roommates. The charts are interactive and fascinating. As Onuoha writes:

…data visualizations add a level of abstraction over real world events; they gather the messiness of human life and render it in objective simplicity. In life, goodbyes can be heartbreaking affairs, painful for all involved. But on a map, a goodbye is as simple as one dot moving out of view.

The project’s data is available in this Github repository.

My Hamster’s Activity Index by /u/snootsboots
This reddit user used a motion sensor connected to a raspberry pi to make sure that his hamster is ok when he’s away. Here’s a picture of the hamster, if you’re curious. His name is Timmy

Internet Pings

My internet’s median ping over time by /u/asecretsin. This a very simple chart, and a simple idea. What I like about it though is that it illustrates how just a little bit of logging and data visualization can reveal a pattern in one’s environment. It clearly shows that the response times slow down from 6pm to 10pm. I have a home office and it often felt like the internet slowed down around the time people starting getting off work.

From the Forum
Activity trackers without online requirement
My review of the H2O-Pal – A Hydration Tracker
Consumer genome raw data comparison – Which has the most health information?
Benefits of 24/7 heart rate monitoring
Can You Quantify Inner Peace?
How to find all major volunteer bioscience projects I can partake in?

As someone who still is not satisfied with any sleep tracking device or app that I have tried, I related to this dialogue from a tumblr called Zen.Sen.Life:

  • Sleep Tracking App: I see you’re not violently throwing yourself around your bed, you must be in a deep sleep. Sweet dreams, buddy!
  • Me: I’m actually still awake.
  • Sleep Tracking App: But you’re lying still…
  • Me: Because I’m trying to get to sleep.
  • Sleep Tracking App: You mean you ARE asleep.
  • Me: I really don’t.
  • Sleep Tracking App: You’re going to have to trust me, I do this professionally and I know sleep when I see it, and I’m pretty sure you’re asleep right now.
  • Me: I couldn’t be more awake.
  • Sleep Tracking App: This is all a dream…
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What We Are Reading


A few notes up top here. First, if you haven’t yet checked it out please give our new QS Radio podcast a listen. We’d love to hear what you think!

Second, our QS15 Conference & Exposition is fast approaching. It’s going to be a wonderful and jam-packed three days of talks, sessions, and amazing demos. Our Early Bird tickets are almost gone. Register before Monday (May 11th) to get $200 off the regular price!

Now, on to the links!


Data (v.) by Jer Thorp. So many people in my network were sharing this over the last few days I had to give it a read, and I’m happy I did. Jer Thorp makes a succinct argument for turning the word “data” from a amorphous blob of a noun into a verb.

By embracing the new verbal form of data, we might better understand its potential for action, and in turn move beyond our own prescribed role as the objects in data sentences.

How Not to Drown in Numbers by Alex Peysakhovich and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. In this great article, two data scientists make the case for “small data” – the surveys and rich contextual information from open-ended questions.

We are optimists about the potential of data to improve human lives. But the world is incredibly complicated. No one data set, no matter how big, is going to tell us exactly what we need. The new mountains of blunt data sets make human creativity, judgment, intuition and expertise more valuable, not less.

Data, Data, Everywhere, but Who Gets to Interpret It? by Dawn Nafus. We’ve been collaborating with Dawn and her team at Intel for quite a while, and we’ve learned a lot. Reading this wonderful piece lead to even more learning. Dawn uses this article to describe not only the community of individuals who track, but also why, and what happens when it comes time to interpret the data. (You can explore DataSense, the tool Dawn and her team have been working on, here: makesenseofdata.com)

Applying Design Thinking to Protect Research Subjects by Lori Melichar. Lori is a director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and recently did some work related to how institutional review boards (IRBs) function. For those who don’t know, IRBs are the groups/committee that evaluate the benefits and harms of human subjects research. Their process hasn’t changed much in the few decades, but the face of research has. In this short post Lori describes the ideas that came from thinking about how we might re-design the current system.

ResearchKit and the Changing Face of Human Subjects Protections by Avery Avrakotos. As mentioned above, research is changing, and one of the big changes we’re currently seeing is the use of mobile systems like Apple’s ResearchKit. It’s not all sunshine and roses though, the popularity and excitement that goes along with these new methods also means we have to think hard about we protect those who choose to participate.


I measured my brain waves and task performance on caffeine- here’s what I found by John Fawkes. John was interested in how much caffeine he should be ingesting to help with his mental and physical performance. In this post he details some of what did, how he tested himself, and what he learned about how caffeine, and how much of it, affects different aspects of his life.

The Quantified Self & Diabetes by Tom Higham. Tom was diagnosed with diabetes in the late 80s. In this short post he details some of the different apps and tools he uses to “get my HbA1c down to the best levels it’s ever been.”

2014: A Year in New Music by Eric Boam. I had the pleasure of meeting Eric recently in Austin and was blown away by his ongoing music tracking project. I’m excited to see this new report and learn a bit more about what he’s discovered.

Apple Watch Heart Rate Comparison by Brad Larson. Brad used a simple script to export the heart rate values from his Apple Watch and compare it to two different heart rate measurement devices. Above is a comparison with the Mio Alpha, and he also compared is to a more traditional chest strap and found the readings to be “nearly identical.”

From the Forum

Lady Data
S+ Device
Continuing posts on visualizing my weight workout data

This week on QuantifiedSelf.com

QS Radio: Episode 2
QS15 Conference Preview: Katie McCurdy on Symptom Tracking with Spreadsheets

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