Growth of Quantified Self

The first Quantified Self (QS) Meetup group met in Kevin Kelly’s house near San Francisco in 2008. I was there; so was Tim Ferriss. Now there are 19 QS groups, as distant as Sydney and Cape Town.

I believe this is the beginning of a movement that will greatly improve human health. I think QS participants will discover, as I did, that simple experiments can shed light on how to be healthy — experiments that mainstream researchers are unwilling or unable to do. Echoing Jane Jacobs, I’ve said farmers didn’t invent tractors. That’s not what farmers do, nor could they do it. Likewise, mainstream health researchers, such as medical school professors, are unable to greatly improve their research methods. That’s not what they do, nor could they do it. They have certain methodological skills; they apply them over and over. To understand the limitations of those methods would require a broad understanding of science that few health researchers seem to have. (For example, many health researchers dismiss correlations because “correlation does not equal causation.” In fact, correlations have been extremely important clues to causality.) Big improvements in health research will never come from people who make their living doing health research, just as big improvements in farming have never come from farmers. That’s where QS comes in.

The first QS conference is May 28-29. Tickets are still available.

6 Replies to “Growth of Quantified Self”

  1. I think it is ironic that somebody who knows about Veblen, could say something like “Echoing Jane Jacobs, I’ve said farmers didn’t invent tractors. That’s not what farmers do, nor could they do it.”

    About Thorstein Veblen’s father.

    “Thomas understood the science of his day. He
    crossbred Merino sheep to produce a hardier
    version capable of surviving Wisconsin winters
    yet produce high-quality wool. He built Kari a
    loom—an endeavor that required precision far
    above that necessary for homebuilding. He
    invented a portable threshing machine powered
    by two horses that allowed neighbors with small
    crops to avoid threshing with a flail.”

    My guess is that you don’t know any north European farmers, and thus pedal myths that is common in intellectual circles.

  2. SR, I can’t tell what your example is meant to show. Sure, farmers could produce small improvements. Genetics wasn’t invented by farmers so I am not sure what your cross-breeding example is meant to illustrate. Likewise, farmers were never metallurgists, so the many metal components involved in a portable threshing machine wouldn’t have been possible without innovation that took place far from farms. To the best of my knowledge, the innovations that have led to big improvements in farming — such as tractors — all started and gathered momentum far from farms. If you disagree, please give an example.

  3. Hi Seth, new reader, new to QS. Really like the blog.

    That said, the second to last sentence is a really silly if you didn’t intend it to be tongue in cheek — which it now appears you did not. Don’t squander your credibility.

    If your claim is that eg. geneticists (paid researchers very much like those in the health industry) are driving modern farming, you undermine your own argument in the other case.

    And while genetics may be propelling 21st century farming advances, that is very different from a claim about *the entire history of farming*. No need to dismiss the contributions of an entire history of labor in a profession. And many of the so called modern “advances” imported into agriculture since WW2 — and not invented by farmers — I could rather do without. And when I can, I do.

    Best,
    WR

  4. WR, you’re welcome. And your comment doesn’t come off as rude. Let me give two examples. The biggest advance in the treatment of diabetes since the discovery of insulin was home blood glucose monitoring, invented by Richard Bernstein, an engineer. It permitted far better insulin dosing. Bernstein was not a professional health researcher nor, at the time, a doctor. The discovery that smoking causes lung cancer was not made by cancer doctors — it was made by a med student and epidemiologists. I don’t mean to imply that conventional health research is useless. But it is often, as in these two discoveries, only half the story. The other half of the story came from elsewhere.

  5. “SR, I can’t tell what your example is meant to show. Sure, farmers could produce small improvements.”

    I really like your theories about experts being experts in what is known knowledge, and don’t really want to check things for themselves, and was kind of disappointed that you did not apply that theory about the US academic myth about the “fly over country” where only uncultured, unschooled mid westerns live.

    We have this myth about rural people in academia here in Europe as well, where most have visited a third world farm, but not been to their own countryside and gotten to know the farmers there. (I have gone to 4 universities, so I know it is common)

    A farmer does not need to be a poor peasant, and he does not work with farming all the time. It is also very common in north-European history that people who became rich in the city, bought a farm for the money, just like rich farmers bought education for their children.

    Just like Veblen’s father was a carpenter in addition to a farmer, it was and still is common in Scandinavia that most had some other kind of work, like being a priest, blacksmith, weaver, carpenter, fisher, boat-builder,musician, soldiers etc. Same went for the women, that were midwifes, bakers, cooks, spinners, herb-growers. Just like in a “shitty”, people specialize to get more money, the main difference being that everybody needed to do their share in harvest or planting and plowing.

    What this means for a child growing up, is that you get to play with real mechanical objects from a young age if you showed the talent, and thus get a head start, instead of reading about it, or for that matter first become an apprentice, then a journeyman, before you could start doing something by your own design when you became a master.

    Also a phenomena worth mentioning, is that the smaller the place where you live are, the easier it becomes to become the local expert, where you need to come up with a solution yourself, since there is nobody that can tell you how it is done.

    “To the best of my knowledge, the innovations that have led to big improvements in farming — such as tractors — all started and gathered momentum far from farms. If you disagree, please give an example.”

    When I saw how sure you were, I became unsure, so I started to read more about tractors, and funny enough, the first “official” tractor was made by farmer who was the son of a farmer.

    There is no good wikipedia page on him, but a google search for “john froelich tractor” will give a lot of hits.

    Also since I became unsure, I wanted to check most of the predecessors of the tractor, and it seems that most of them were made of sons of farmers or sons of rural blacksmiths who made or repaired farm equipment.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Fowler_(agricultural_engineer)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Garrett_(1755–1839)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aveling_and_Porter
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portable_engine
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolaus_Otto
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traction_engine

    Some Tractor makers I know today, who were started by sons of farmers, and grew up on a farm.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giovanni_Agnelli (FIAT)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Holland_Machine_Company
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome_Increase_Case (CASE)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_ford#Early_years
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Ferguson

    You also have these people who grew up on a farm, Borlaug, Mendel, Carl von Linne, and this quote is also quite funny.

    Darwin began to speculate on how new species could arise by natural observable causes. His idiosyncratic eclecticism led him to investigate some unconventional evidence. He made countless inquiries of animal breeders, both farmers and hobbyists like pigeon fanciers, trying to understand how they made distinct breeds of plants and animals. Gradually Darwin concluded that organisms were infinitely variable, and that the supposed limits or barriers to species was a belief without foundation. In modern terms we would say that Darwin came to accept that life evolves. One conventional view of the time was that species had been created where they are now found, in accordance with the environment. Few men of science then held to the view that there had been only a single species creation event. The fossil evidence seemed to show very many creations had occurred in different geological eras.

    http://darwin-online.org.uk/darwin.html

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