The Romance of Tracking

I am at the First Quantified Self Conference in Mountain View. The attendees are much more relaxed and cheerful than at the academic conferences I’ve attended, presumably because they chose to come. Some are from Europe. My overall take is that the conference’s theme is the romance of tracking, in the sense that the typical presentation is something like: isn’t it wonderful that I’m measuring this? Or hypothetical. (Of course, the research presented at typical academic conferences is almost never shown to have practical value.) I think this is entirely reasonable. In my experience, it is very hard to learn something clearly useful and takes a long time. For example, I measured my sleep for about 10 years before figuring out how to improve it.

Sean Ahren‘s presentation was one of the best I heard, and illustrated the difficulty. He has Crohn’s Disease. He wondered if hookworms would help. Day by day, he measured how much pain he felt, and for some of the time took hookworms. There was no clear difference between the two periods (with and without hookworms). He learned plenty of useful stuff — how easy/difficult it was to do the measurements, what the data look like, the apparent ineffectiveness of one brand of hookworms —  but when contrasted with the goal of learning how to reduce pain from Crohn’s, it doesn’t seem like  much. Perhaps the average Crohn’s sufferer would say it’s great you’re doing this but think how does this help me? I think his observations lasted about 8 months. Perhaps if he continues for 6 years, by then the amount of learning will be larger and more tangible. Overall it’s a good example of the way scientific progress and job don’t mix well. When you have a job, you make tangible progress quickly: you fill someone’s order, for example. They wanted something, you gave it to them. Tangible. Whereas trying to clearly improve one’s Crohn’s Disease might take ten years. Too long if your motivation is connected to making a living. Too long for professional scientists.

At a breakout session on sleep experiments, I learned that someone had great success wearing blue-blocking glasses (which look orange) after 9 pm. Something I want to try. I’ve heard about these glasses before but these results were especially impressive. The glasses quickly reduced how long it took him to fall asleep. Someone else was told he had sleep apnea. But when his acid reflux got better, so did his sleep.

You can read about many talks, including mine, in great detail at Ethan Zuckerman’s blog.

5 Replies to “The Romance of Tracking”

  1. This blue-blocking glasses thing sounds interesting. And it makes totally sense. I have noticed improvements in my sleep by looking in a daylight lamp (the ones against winter depression) throughout the day. And the newest iteration of these lamps does only use blue light. So it is the blue part of the light thats seems to do the job in the eyes. And of course in the evening we want want to avoid simulating it to be midday. So blocking away the blue part might be very helpful (especially when one is looking a lot in computer displays or works in a bright environment). I will definetly try this.

  2. Seth, check out a program called Flux (F.lux?) which gradually filters blue out of your computer monitor after sunset.

  3. Do you know if the blue blockers were a common ‘over-the-counter’ variety, or medical grade specifically designed to block out the blue wave lengths that can disrupt sleep in the evening?

    I remember years ago trying to find blue blockers specifically made and marketed for the latter, but never could find any so just settled for some amber clip-ons, but I’ve always wondered if there as good as those used in the John Hopkins sleep research where I first got the idea from.

  4. Hi Seth,
    You might find the article on this topic at: to be useful. We have started using the amber glasses with our daughter who is ultradian cycling bipolar, hoping to reset the circadian rhythm. You might be interested in the Dark Therapy link on that page. We are also considering some blue light therapy or a dawn simulator in the winter months (we are in Canada so winter days are short).

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