Assorted Links

Thanks to Alex Chernavsky and Tim Beneke.

Assorted Links

Why Quantified Self Matters

Why Quantified Self Matters is the title of a talk I gave yesterday at a Quantified Self conference in Beijing. I gave six examples of things I’d discovered via self-tracking and self-experiment (self-centered moi?), such as how to lose weight (the Shangri-La Diet) and be in a better mood. I said that the Quantified Self movement matters because it supports that sort of thing, i.e., personal science, which has several advantages over professional science. The Quantified Self movement supports learning from data, in contrast to trusting experts.

If I’d had more time, I would have said that personal science and professional science have different strengths. Personal science is good at both the beginning of research (when a new idea has not yet been discovered) and the end of research (when a new idea, after having been confirmed, is applied in everyday life). It is a good way to come up with plausible new ideas and a good way to develop them (assess their plausibility when they are still not very plausible, figure out the best dose, the best treatment details). That’s the beginning of research. Personal science is also a good way to take accepted ideas and apply them in everyday life (e.g., a medical treatment, an idea about deficiency disease) because it fully allows for human diversity (e.g., a medicine that works for most people doesn’t work for you, you have an allergy, whatever). That’s the end of research.

Professional science works well, better than personal science, when an idea is in a middle range of plausibility — quite plausible but not yet fully accepted. At that point it fits a professional scientist’s budget. Their research must be expensive (Veblen might have coined the term conspicuous research, in addition  to “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous leisure”) and only quite plausible ideas are worth expensive tests. It also fits their other needs, such as avoidance of “crazy” ideas and a steady stream of publishable results (because ideas that are quite plausible are likely to produce usable results when tested). Professional science is also better than personal science for studying all sorts of “useless” topics. They aren’t actually useless but the value is too obscure and perhaps the research too expensive for people to study them on their own (e.g., I did research on how rats measure time).

In other words, the Quantified Self movement matters because it gives all of us a new scientific tool. A way to easily see where the scientific tools we already have cannot easily see.



Measuring Yourself to Improve Your Health? Want to Guest-Blog?

What surprised me most about my self-experimental discoveries was that they were outside my area of expertise (animal learning). I discovered how to sleep better but I’m not a sleep researcher. I discovered how to improve my mood but I’m not a mood researcher. I discovered that flaxseed oil improved brain function but I’m not a nutrition researcher. And so on. This is not supposed to happen. Chemistry professors are not supposed to advance physics.  Long ago, this rule was broken. Mendel was not a biologist, Wegener (continental drift) was not a geologist. It hasn’t been broken in the last 100 years. As knowledge increases, the “gains due to specialization” — the advantage of specialists over everyone else within their area of expertise — is supposed to increase. The advantage, and its growth, seem inevitable. It occurs, say economists, because specialized knowledge (e.g., what physicists know that the rest of us, including chemists, don’t know) increases. My theory of human evolution centers on the idea that humans have evolved to specialize and trade. In my life I use thousands of things made by specialists that I couldn’t begin to make myself.

Here we have two things. 1. A general rule (specialists have a big advantage, within their specialty, over the rest of us) that is overwhelmingly true. 2. An exception (my work). How can this be explained? What can we learn from it? I’ve tried to answer these questions but I can add to what I said in that paper. The power of specialization is clearly enormous. Adam Smith, who called specialization “division of labor”, was right. The existence of an exception to the general rule suggests  there are forces pushing in the opposite direction (toward specialists being worse than the rest of us in their area of expertise) that can be more powerful than the power of specialization. Given the power of specialization, the countervailing forces must be remarkably strong. Can we learn more about them? Can we harness them? Can we increase them? The power of specialization has been increasing for thousands of years. How strong the countervailing forces may become is unclear.

The more you’ve read this blog, the more you know what I think the countervailing forces are. Some of them weaken specialists: 1. Professors prefer to be useless rather than useful (Veblen).  2. A large fraction (99%?) of health care workers have no interest in remedies that do not allow them to make money. 3. Medical school professors are terrible scientists. 4. Restrictions on research. Some of them strengthen the rest of us: 1. Data storage and analysis have become very cheap. 2. It is easier for non-scientists to read the scientific literature. 3. No one cares more about your health than you. These are examples. The list could be much longer. What’s interesting is not the critique of health care, which is pretty obvious, but the apparent power of these forces, which isn’t obvious at all.

I want to learn more about this. I want learn how to use these opposing forces and, if possible, increase them. One way to do this is find more exceptions to the general rule, that is, find more people who have improved their health beyond expert advice. I have found some examples. To find more, to learn more about them, and to encourage this sort of thing (DIY Health), I offer the opportunity to guest-blog here.

I think the fundamental reason you can improve on what health experts tell you is that you can gather data. Health experts have weakened their position by ignoring vast amounts of data. Three kinds of data are helpful:  (a) other people’s experiences, (b) scientific papers and (c) self-measurement (combined with self-experimentation). No doubt (c) is the hardest to collect and the most powerful. I would like to offer one or more people the opportunity to guest-blog here about what happens when they try to do (c). In plain English, I am looking for people who are measuring a health problem  and trying to improve on expert advice. For example, trying to lower blood pressure without taking blood pressure medicine. Or counting pimples to figure out what’s causing your acne. Or measuring your mood to test alternatives to anti-depressants. I don’t care what’s measured, so long as it is health-related. (Exception: no weight-loss stories) and you approach these measurements with an open mind (e.g., not trying to promote some product or theory). I am not trying to collect success stories. I am trying to find out what happens when people take this approach.

Guest-blogging may increase your motivation, push you to think more (“I blog, therefore I think“) and give you access to the collective wisdom of readers of this blog (in the comments). If guest-blogging about your experiences and progress (or lack of it) might interest you, contact me with details of what you are doing or plan to do.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Dave Lull.

Quantified Self Utopia: What Would It Look Like?

On the QS forums, Christian Kleineidam asked:

While doing Quantified Self public relations I lately meet the challenge of explaining how our lives are going to change if everything in QS goes the way we want. A lot of what I do in quantified self is about boring details. . . .  Let’s imagine a day 20 years in the future and QS is successful. How will that day be different than [now]?

Self-measurement has helped me two ways. Continue reading “Quantified Self Utopia: What Would It Look Like?”

Last Weekend’s Quantified Self Conference

Last Saturday and Sunday there was an international Quantified Self Conference at Stanford. I attended. In Gary Wolf’s introductory talk, he said there are 70 Quantified Self chapters (New York, London, etc.) and 10,000 members. I was especially impressed because I recently counted about 50 chapters. One new chapter is Quantified Self Beijing. It has its first meeting — in the form of a day-long conference — in nine hours and I haven’t quite finished my talk (“Brain Tracking: Why and How”). Please indulge me while I procrastinate by writing about the Stanford conference. Continue reading “Last Weekend’s Quantified Self Conference”

Assorted Links

Thanks to Bryan Castañeda and Alex Chernavsky.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Bryan Castañeda.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Anne Weiss.

The Non-Obvious Value of Self-Tracking

A New York doctor named Jay Parkinson is skeptical about the appeal of self-measurement:

There is a very, very small subset of people who want to document their life according to their health— the quantified selfers. But this group is tiny because it’s just data geeks who are obsessed with data. They are people who truly believe data changes behavior.

As caricatures go, this is fair. The audience and speakers at Quantified Self meetups do appear to be “data geeks who are obsessed with data” and, yes, this is a tiny subset of people. I don’t put myself in that category. I have zero interest in “documenting” my life. I record a tiny amount of stuff and only stuff I think will make a difference. For example, I stopped measuring my blood pressure after it became clear it was low enough.

Parkinson continues:

Data gets old after a while. After about a month, for those who are not obsessed, it becomes meaningless. That is, unless you have an obsession with data. . . . Good luck trying to build a viable business around that group.

Yes, and “there is a world market for about five computers”, as the president of IBM supposedly said in the 1940s. I have measured myself for so long (decades) not because I am obsessed with data but because I reaped huge benefits. In the beginning, self-measurement showed me how to reduce my acne considerably more than my dermatologist’s advice alone. Later it led to all sorts of improvements: better sleep, better mood, lower weight, fewer colds, healthier gums, better balance, better brain function. Life-changing benefits. The fraction of adults who would like to sleep better, be in a better mood, lose weight, get fewer colds, and so on is very large — perhaps 99%. Is Starbucks a “viable business”? It is built around people needing stimulants (caffeine). An enormous number of products and services are about losing weight. One of the world’s most “viable business” is illicit drugs. I believe a large fraction of illicit drug use is self-medication for depression. (More: The day I posted this, I came across this: “She said heroin helped her fight depression.”)

There is nothing obvious about how I managed to improve my sleep, mood, weight and so on. The solutions I discovered via self-measurement were exceedingly surprising, at least to me. So there is nothing obvious about how to use self-measurement to improve one’s sleep, etc. Self-measurement is needed, yes, but it’s not the only thing that’s needed. I needed: 1. Wise choice of what to measure (e.g., measure the problem, not the solution — I don’t have a FitBit for example.) 2. Wise choice of what to change. (To improve my sleep, for example, I needed a good understanding of sleep research. “Common sense” was not enough.) 3. Experimental design skill. 4. Data analysis skill. To say data is boring (to most people) is like saying tires are boring (to most people). By themselves, tires have little use, just as data alone has little use. But they are part of something very useful.

Consider literacy. For a long time, the notion that “everyone would benefit from literacy” seemed ridiculous. Books were too expensive! There were so few of them. Only a tiny fraction of people (e.g., monks) knew how to read. It was hard to learn to read. Good luck basing a business on literacy! But eventually everything changed. Right now, few quantified selfers, as far as I can tell, seem to know how to learn something useful from their measurements. (When I had been doing it for a short time, I didn’t know either.) For example, Stephen Wolfram appears to have learned nothing of use from a huge amount of self-measurement. New measurement devices, like FitBit and so on, are like books — it is as if few people know how to read. But that can change.

Assorted Links


  • Are the Boston Red Sox malnourished? Paul Jaminet looks at the connection between poor health of the Boston Red Sox and the dietary advice they were given.
  • Cognitive benefits of  chewing gum. “Chewing gum was associated with greater alertness and a more positive mood. Reaction times were quicker in the gum condition, and this effect became bigger as the task became more difficult.”
  • Dave Asprey and Quantified Self. “He claims to have jacked up his IQ by 40 points.”
  • “Why is this country called China in English?” I asked a Tsinghua student. “It was a source of china,” she said. She was more right than she could have known. The world’s oldest pottery has been found in China. (Via Melissa McEwen.) Given this head start, it’s no surprise that for a long time China had a monopoly on really hard pottery, called bone china or porcelain. It was the only source of this china.

Surprising Predictions From Self-Measurement

Patrick Tucker, an editor at The Futurist, posted a request on the Quantified Self Forums for “astounding” predictions based on self-quantification. He is writing a book about using data to make predictions.

Here are examples from my self-measurement:

1. Drinking sugar water causes weight loss. The self-quantification was measuring my weight. It began when I found a new way to lose weight, which pushed me to try to explain why it worked. The explanation I came up with — a new theory of weight control — made two predictions that via self-experimentation I found to be true. That gave me faith in the theory. Then the theory suggested a really surprising conclusion, that loss of appetite during a trip to Paris was due to the sugar-sweetened soft drinks I had been drinking. If so, drinking sugar water should cause weight loss. (The nearly-universal belief is that sugar causes weight gain, of course.) I tested this prediction and it was true. More.

2. Seeing faces in the morning improves mood the next day (but not the same day). This is so surprising I’ll spell it out: Seeing faces Monday morning improves my mood on Tuesday but not Monday. For years I measured my sleep trying to reduce early awakening. Finally I figured out that not eating breakfast helped. There was no breakfast during the Stone Age; this led me to take seriously the idea that other non-Stone-Age aspects of my life were also hurting my sleep. That was one reason I decided to watch to watch a certain TV show one morning. It had no immediate effect. However, the next morning I woke up feeling great. Via self-measurement of mood, I determined it was the faces on TV that produced the effect, confirmed the effect many times, and learned what details of the situation (e.g., face size) controlled the effect. More.

3. One-legged standing improves sleep. Via self-measurement I determined that how much I stood during a day controlled how well I slept. If I stood a long time, I slept better. Ten years later I woke one day after having slept much better than usual. The previous day had been unusual in many ways. One of them was so tiny that at first I overlooked it: I had stood on one leg a few times. Just for a few minutes. Yet it turned out that it was the one-legged standing that had improved my sleep. Without the previous work on ordinary standing I would have ignored the one-legged standing — it seemed trivial.

4. Butter is healthy. I found that butter improved how fast I can do arithmetic problems. No doubt it improves brain function measured in other ways. Because the optimum nutrition for the brain will be close to the optimum nutrition for the rest of the body — at least, this is what I believe — I predict that butter will turn out to be healthy for my whole body, not just my brain.

5. Mainstream Vitamin D research is all messed up. Via self-measurement I confirmed Tara Grant’s conclusion that taking Vitamin D3 in the morning (rather than later) improved her sleep. It improved my sleep, too. When I had taken it at other times of day I had noticed nothing. Apparently the timing of Vitamin D — the time of day that you take it — matters enormously. Take it at the right time in the morning: obvious good effect. Take it late in the evening: obvious bad effect. Vitamin D researchers haven’t realized this. They have neither controlled when Vitamin D is taken (in experiments) nor measured when it is taken (in surveys). Because timing matters so much it is as if they have done their research failing to control or measure dose. If you fail to control/measure dose, whatever conclusion you reach (good/no effect/bad) depends entirely on what dose your subjects happened to take. And you have no idea what dose that is.

The Value of Moodscope

In 2007, Jon Cousins started tracking his mood to help NHS psychiatrists decide if he was cyclothymic (a mild form of bipolar disorder). After a few months of tracking, he started sharing his scores with a friend, who expressed concern when his score was low. Jon’s mood sharply improved, apparently because of the sharing. This led him to start Moodscope, a website that makes it easy to track your mood and share the results.

I was curious about the generality of what happened to Jon — how does sharing mood ratings affect other people? In January, Jon kindly posted a short survey about this. More than 100 people replied. Continue reading “The Value of Moodscope”

Ten Interesting Things I Learned From Adventures in Nutritional Therapy

A blog called Adventures in Nutritional Therapy (started March 2011) is about what the author learned while trying to solve her health problems via nutrition and a few other things. She usually assumed her health problems were due to too much or too little of some nutrient. She puts it like this: “using mostly non-prescription, over-the-counter (OTC) supplements and treatments to address depression, brain fog, insomnia, migraines, hypothyroidism, restless legs, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a bunch of other annoyances.” In contrast to what “the American medical establishment” advises. Mostly it is nutritional self-experimentation about a wide range of health problems.

Interesting things I learned from the archives:

1. Question: Did Lance Armstrong take performance-enhancing drugs? I learned that LiveStrong (Armstrong’s site) is a content farm. Now answer that question again.

2. “If you return repeatedly to a conventional doctor with a problem they can’t solve, they will eventually suggest you need antidepressants.”

3.  “When I mentioned [to Dr. CFS] the mild success I’d had with zinc, he said it was in my mind: I wanted it to work and it did. When I pointed out that 70% of the things I tried didn’t work, he changed the subject. Dr. CFS’ lack of basic reasoning skills did nothing to rebuild my confidence in the health care system.” Quite right. I have had the same experience. Most things I tried failed. When something finally worked, it could hardly be a placebo effect. This line of reasoning has been difficult for some supposedly smart people to grasp.

4. A list of things that helped her with depression. “Quit gluten” is number one.

5. Pepsi caused her to get acne. Same here.

6. 100 mg/day of iron caused terrible acne that persisted for weeks after she stopped taking the iron.

7. “In September 2008 I started a journey that serves as a good example of the limits of the American health care system, where you can go through three months, 15 doctor visits, $7,000 in medical tests, three prescriptions and five over-the-counter medications trying to treat your abdominal pain, and after you lose ten pounds due to said pain, you are asked by the “specialists” if you have an eating disorder.” I agree. Also an example of the inability of people within the American health care system to see those limits.  If they recognized that people outside their belief system might have something valuable to contribute, apparently something awful would happen.

8. Acupuncture relieved her sciatica, but not for long. “By the time I left [the acupuncturist’s office] the pain was gone, but it crept back during my 30-minute drive home.”

9. Pointing out many wrongs does not equal a right. She praises a talk by Robert Lustig about evil fructose. I am quite sure that fructose (by itself) did not cause the obesity epidemic. For one thing, I lost a lot of weight by drinking it. (Here is an advanced discussion.) In other words, being a good critic of other people’s work (as Lustig may be) doesn’t get you very far. I think it is hard for non-scientists (and even some scientists) to understand that all scientific work has dozens of “flaws”. Pointing out the flaws in this or that is little help, unless those flaws haven’t been noticed. What usually helps isn’t seeing flaws, it is seeing what can be learned.

10. A list of what caused headaches and migraines. One was MSG. Another was Vitamin D3, because it made her Vitamin B1 level too low.

She is a good writer. Mostly I found support for my beliefs: 1. Of the two aspects of self-experimentation (measure, change),  change is more powerful. She does little or no self-tracking  (= keeping records) as far as I could tell, yet has made a lot of progress. She has done a huge amount of trying different things. 2. Nutritional deficiencies cause a lot of problems. 3. Fermented food is overlooked. She never tries it, in spite of major digestive problems. She does try probiotics. 4. American health care is exceedingly messed-up. As she puts it, “the American medical establishment has no interest in this approach [which often helped her] and, when they do deign to discuss it, don’t know what the #%@! they’re talking about.” 5. “Over the years I’ve found accounts of personal experiences to be very helpful.” I agree. Her blog and mine are full of them.

Thanks to Alexandra Carmichael.

More Her latest post mentions me (“The fella after my own heart is Seth Roberts, who after ten years of experimenting . . . “). I was unaware of that when I wrote the above.

Assorted Links

  • Interview with me on Jimmy Moore’s Livin’ La Vida Locarb
  • This article about natto helped its author win a prize for best newspaper food column
  • great QS talk about self-measurement by John Sumser. “It all started when I quit smoking. Bad idea. Since I quit smoking in 2004, every quarter for 7 years it has rained shit on me.”
  • In a QS talk, I compare the Quantified Self movement and the paleo movement.
  • Chinese high-school students in America: Not what was promised. Lack of “rigor” has benefits, as I have blogged: “Dismayed by the school’s [poor] college placement record, Chen considered transferring. Instead, he began to enjoy himself. Because his courses were undemanding, he had time for friends and outside interests. He took four Advanced Placement tests on his own.“I’ve developed my personality a lot,” Chen said. “Everything turned out for the best.””
  • If you read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, a pro-vegetarian book, you may remember the big role played by some casein experiments with rats. Rats that ate a low-casein (= low animal-protein) diet were supposedly in better health than rats that ate a high-casein (= high animal-protein) diet. In this article Chris Masterjohn shows how misleading that was. “One thing is certain: low-protein diets depressed normal growth, increased the susceptibility to many toxins, killed toxin-exposed animals earlier, induced fatty liver, and increased the development of pre-cancerous lesions when fed during the initiation period of chemical carcinogenesis.”

Thanks to Janet Chang.