Unquantified, for right now

It didn’t feel right to just let this site sit unattended for so many months.

For right now, it has served its purpose.

I kicked my tracking habit, mostly. I still use my FitBit on days when I work, to make sure I walk around six miles a day. That’s really to make sure I get enough sunlight and balance out all that sitting at a desk. While I could just estimate the distances, using the FitBit means I don’t have to count blocks.

I no longer do any of the other tracking and my life hasn’t fallen apart in any way, shape or form. I’ve traveled more this year, done more, gone to more concerts, read more, explored more, lived more.

The other impetus for The Unquantified Self was my annoyance with the idea that somehow devices would save our health, and bring about some gigantic sea change where we all change our habits, diagnose our problems and fix them ourselves. This idea has mostly lost traction. And more, all the overhyped tech is in retreat. Nike’s Fuel Band is quitting. The Apple Watch is no longer sold on its abilities to self-track. There’s increasing awareness that most people don’t stick with tracking and those who do are the worried well, not the sick. And those who track have realized that their data isn’t particularly useful in pinpointing the causes of any problems. The whole ‘movement’ has lost steam – going out with a whimper rather than a bang.

So for right now, I don’t feel like I have a ton to add.

But if I do notice anything particularly annoying, I’ll call it out.


Nowhere to go but everywhere

The not-so-secret belief behind the Unquantified Self is that once we disentangle ourselves from the impulse to contain and control our lives by measuring everything, all the time, we could refocus that energy on living more adventurously.

Which of course is always easier said than done.

I have the crazy good fortune to work freelance, and to make enough money even if I just work seven or eight months a year. I know I need to be more daring with that non-working time. I used to take on every little job, and dissipated much of that time with half-days and quarter-days worked. I also used to worry a lot, and spent that time obsessing over where the next job would come from instead of just letting go. But after three years of living this unmoored life I’ve gotten more confident.

Which is why I set off to go backpacking in the Republic of Georgia in June, by myself, without husband or child. I’ve loved Georgia from afar for 26 years. I also haven’t traveled anywhere by myself for 22 years, apart from a few smaller North American forays. There was of course some tentativeness to this trip, a trip I have been planning in my head for so many years. Could Georgia live up to my exalted expectations?

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The short answer is yes. I won’t go into long detail. This is not a travel blog. A week of small and large revelations, beauty, friendliness, compulsive walking with a cause (over 20 miles a day\). I finally got to use the crummy amounts of Georgian I had still stuck in my head after all those years. I will be back, soon. This was just the beginning.

Later that summer, Scotland and England. Family vacation to a country I once lived in. I went back to Oxford and got my master’s degree [long story]. Stayed in my London apartment [long story].

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Summer has been brilliant. And I haven’t tracked much. Only my sleep. And distance. Those I cannot help.

I know that this unmoored life can’t and won’t continue forever. I’ll go back to work. I’ll get fearful. I’ll worry. Some things will fall apart.

But for right now I am immensely grateful for a brilliant, flawless Spring and Summer, beautiful, footloose, serendipitous.

The ultimate tracking tool

I was talking to my friend Scott the other day. He is what you could call a gadget athlete, very into the idea of tracking, and a master of the latest device, but not actually doing much exercise beyond walking to and from the train. But his latest purchase left me genuinely awestruck.

There, right next to his Nike FuelBand, was the Tikker – a tracker whose sole purpose is to count down to your death. It counts down the years, months, days, hours and seconds that you have left.

Its point is to be a constant reminder that time isn’t fungible, but a good that’s becoming scarcer every day. It reminded me a bit of Darren Almond’s clock installation – the quietly urgent tick tock that can be heard behind all the din.

It is of course mostly a gimmick. Actuarial tables can’t predict when you die nor will a watch. And I am hoping you are already doing some seizing of the day. And really, isn’t almost everything a waste of time, evanescent, gone without a trace? Isn’t that the bitter-sweetness of the human condition?

But it is a brilliant rebuff to so many trackers already out there (and having checked into CES, we ain’t seen nothing yet). It says, to me, that whatever you happen to track, it’s all futile in the end, we’re all just counting down to when our number is up.



Kicking tracking, no picnic

Time for a bit of a personal update. I set out to so confidently last September to get rid of all the numbers, spreadsheets and devices. I mean, how hard could it be to just … be normal?

Not so easy, it turns out. For a while, everything went well. I walked because I wanted to walk and didn’t worry about hitting x steps or y miles. I ate what I merely guessed were reasonable amounts of food. I no longer did complicated regression analysis on my numbers. I stopped reading most health and fitness blogs and feeds and forums – they mostly all just say the same things anyway. I also mostly didn’t step on the scale, just using my clothes to gauge my weight.

This did free up a considerable amount of time and mental real estate. I read more history books (norse, Mesoamerica) and went to see more concerts (early music, experimental/noise) and just generally got more curious about life again.

I started using a teeny little service that asks me once a day to write a short list of all that was good on that day, creating a log of my small and large adventures. It takes less than a minute and there’s no quantification or further analysis.

So far so good, at least until January. I was working a really big freelance gig, for a very large company, helping to create a new program that’s hugely important for them. Crazy hours, lots of redeye flights, living out an admittedly pretty awesome cafeteria (uni, anyone?). Projecting confidence and nonchalance. Transmitting energy and optimism.

No, I didn’t gain weight. But I just had to start tracking and counting steps again. I know it’s crazy and makes no sense. Just that feeling that my life could go out of control made me reach for the comfort of my numbers.

And now the project is over and done, and I’m still tracking. Because after every big project comes a bout of existential angst – will I ever get another gig? Will I be able to feed my family? Why are we here? What should I do with my life?

I love my freelance life, but it is a rollercoaster, and this stupid, pathetic tracking habit seems to be the price I’m paying.

In my defense I will say that I’m spending much less time on it and don’t obsess over the numbers as much. Plus, I’m still doing more adventuring and aimless wandering. And I’ve booked myself for a trip to Georgia, by myself, in June. Which means I’ve dusted off my Georgian phrase books and grammar and been plotting routes. Maybe that’s the next time I’ll un-track? Wish me luck.

Artist: Roman Opalka

Extreme navel gazing

Just as I was one of the first people to have my genetic information parsed (I joined 23andme in 2007), I simply had to jump on the microbiome bandwagon. Gut microbiome to be specific; call it navel gazing at a slightly deeper level.

And even more than with genetic information the science has yet to catch up with the general excitement. Everyone knows that the gut microbiome is super mega interesting and important. But nobody really knows much about what the specific bacteria do and how they interact with each other, impact your health and well being, and so on.

So they become these perfect Rorschach blots. Everyone sees what they want to see, especially people with a cause, mission or hope.

Anyway, at the end of 2012 I signed up for uBiome‘s Indiegogo campaign, and 16 months later finally got the results. Needless to say, it all took much longer than promised, but it’s early days, and everyone’s learning.

So, what’s the state of my gut microbiome?

Here’s a smattering of the results:

I’ve got a lower than average proportion of  Bacteroidales, bacteria who don’t digest fat well. In other words, it means I get more calories out of the fat I eat than the average North American. Which might well be true, since I seem to need fewer calories than other people. Perhaps my microbiome has adapted to me being borderline underweight all my life.

I’ve got way more Lachnospiraceae than most people. These guys help to digest fiber. I eat a ton of vegetables, so they would be useful.

I’ve got way lower than average levels of Faecalibacteria, who are common gut microbes that break down resistant starches such as legumes and unprocessed whole grains. Even more extreme, I’ve got zero Butyrivibrio in my microbiome. Butyrivibrio digest wheat bran, and play a major role in breaking down simple and complex sugars. Because I rarely eat grains and really no legumes at all, that isn’t perhaps surprising.

Confoundingly, I have lower than average levels of Lactobacillales and Lactobacillaceae, which are the bacteria in ferments, including dairy. I eat from several different strains of yogurt and kefir every week so these should in theory be high. However, there is some debate of whether these guys actually survive in the gut once you eat them, and I’ll be following to see where the science ends up.

Anyways, like I said, the science isn’t there yet. And I’ve got a feeling the answer will be complex, which will annoy all the extremists. That most bacteria types are neither “goodies” or “baddies” in the absolute. We’ll find out that humans are able to thrive with a broad spectrum of diets, and that the biome fluctuates and adapts to all kinds of seasons, foods and geographies. And they’ll find that ultimately all diets that contain a wide range and a large amount of vegetables will be beneficial for your microbiome.

Jeff Leach of The American Gut has recently embarked on a series of self-experiments in which he’ll plot the shift of his microbiome under a wide range of dietary/environmental conditions. While this sounds a little stunty, it might just generate a few interesting hypotheses. And The Human Food Project‘s research into the biome of the Hadza people seems like a worthwhile project.

Finally, I’d argue that the time for having your microbiome analyzed has not yet come. You will not learn enough for the results to be useful, and in any case they’ll support whatever your beliefs are. Like a horoscope, you’ll single out your own truths.

(C) Micah Lidberg

(C) Micah Lidberg



Survivorship bias: when we focus only on success

Great post on survivorship bias from the always spot-on Ethical Nag

The Ethical Nag

We were sitting around with friends and family recently over some very nice red wine when our friend Noel asked me about my weekly Toastmasters meetings, and specifically about whether I thought there are some people who simply never learn to feel comfortable speaking in public even after Toastmasters training. After a moment’s contemplation, I replied to Noel:

“I can’t really say – because those who actually feel too uncomfortable probably just stop attending after a while. The ones who stay seem pretty happy!”

It turns out that what I was describing is essentially what’s known as survivorship bias.* 

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The church of Crossfit

Yes, dear reader, I do Crossfit.

I know, I know. I don’t do Crossfit because I bought the gospel. I think the whole thing is a bit dubious. The faux-patriotic thing. The not-focusing-on-one thing approach to training. That annoying obsession with stupidly named workouts. And so on.

I never heard of it until a couple of years ago, but when I had done the paleo thing for a few months I realized there is a Crossfit gym (sorry, I won’t call it ‘box’) two blocks from my apartment.

I used to half-heartedly lift weights in my thirties, in a regular gym and at home, but I didn’t really have a clue and I didn’t get very far.

I thought getting more serious about exercise, beyond walking, running and cycling might be a good idea. So I joined.

I sucked pretty bad at the beginning and then I got slightly better. And now, almost two years later, I haven’t really improved much. My personal records have mostly stood unchanged for a year or so. Given that I’ve done Crossfit three or four times a week, all out, for 21 months that looks like epic failure. Failure on my part? Failure on my coaches’ part? Failure on Crossfit’s part?

Weirdly, I actually look pretty muscular now; more muscular than some of the much stronger women at the gym. Maybe because I’m relatively skinny, so it shows more. But my (now discarded) scale said my body fat percentage didn’t really change.

I used to get really depressed after workouts (I refuse to call them WODs), wandering home ready to burst into tears, when I’d attempted some heavier weight and failed miserably. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I was angry with myself for not getting better. I’m sure my coaches were a bit frustrated too – they’d given me a lot of extra attention, and if it wasn’t working, it either meant I wasn’t trying hard enough or their coaching wasn’t good enough.

I used to search for “crossfit failure to gain strength” or “crossfit women plateau” on some of the bigger Crossfit message boards and never find much, which made me feel worse. Was I really the only person out there for whom Crossfit wasn’t working?

Now, it could well be that this is really a case of technique, and chances are that if I adopted a more rigorous program focused on strength like Starting Strength I might actually improve. Get over those half-assed, random combinations at my gym. And yet, most everyone else there seemed to always get better, just not me.

But then again, I’ve always been really lousy at almost every sport from a very early age, even though I spent my childhood outside, running, cycling, digging, rollerskating, scootering, building and whatnot. Which made me think there had to be a genetic component. And it does turn out that some people are exercise non-responders.

As the New York Times reported “Hidden away in the results of almost any study of exercise programs is the fact that some people do not respond at all, while others respond at an unusually high rate.”

Which makes me think that I might be one of those people for whom exercise does not lead to many measurable changes.

But why do I seem to be the only one so afflicted among the many people at my gym?

Well, the penny dropped about half a year ago: survivorship bias. The people for whom Crossfit does not lead to measurable improvements tend to drop out and choose some other kind of exercise. New people start all the time, but only a few become regulars. In other words, I am the only idiot who doesn’t get measurable improvements and keeps going regardless.

That changed my thinking completely. I still go, I still don’t make any “progress”, my coaches still give me the ‘sad’ face whenever I fail at my attempts to get to new personal records. But I absolutely, totally do not care. I am not interested in any serious strength programs – I get obsessive about stuff, and the last thing I need is yet another thing to get obsessive about. Crossfit is a decent workout, it’s fun, the people are nice, the gym is two minutes away. I give it my best, and then wander home and do something else. It’s not part of my identity. I don’t do the weird lingo. It’s just exercise.

That’s enough.