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.