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Enthiran is an Indian film that mashes up the major tropes of Indian cinema (weddings, elaborate song and dance numbers etc) with a completely over-the-top James-Cameron-lite action film, heavy science fiction themes of robotics and artificial intelligence, and some completely ridiculous surrealistic non-sequitors worthy of David Lynch.  There's a love triangle between a scientist, his fiancee, and the scientist's robot creation.  It's the sort of thing Neal Stephenson would put into one of his novels to show just how much cultures will mix in the future.  This cut of brain-melting action sequences has been going viral on the internet, but I looked at other parts of the movie, and there's a *lot* going on.

Here are some quick screenshots:

OK, so why would I think this might be one of the most influential movies of 2011? 

I will say, the special effects are ambitious but poorly executed by Western standards, there are plenty of predictable plot elements and piles of trite dialogue, and the very limited number of female characters are mainly there to look pretty. 

The film is obviously geek-bait (scientist-hero with sexy girlfriend, heavy technology focus, quirky enough origin and delivery that it's seen as "alt-y" and therefore embraceable by the subculture), and I'm sure it will take its place in the geek canon with The Matrix, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and whatnot. 

So why is this movie important?  I think it signals a lot of interesting developments:
- Increased acceptance of many new technologies into popular culture, including very traditional non-Western cultures.  (They're *singing* about *Google*!)
- Reorganization of social networks around the world along lines of shared interests as opposed to shared location.  We may get to a point where IT professionals in the US may have more connections with IT professionals in India than with people in a different cultural cluster in the US.   (I just about flipped my lid when I saw Freakonomics show up)
- Less American cultural dominance in media production.  This film cost $40 million to make, and there are only 70 million Tamil* speakers in the world, so this was definitely intended to be a global film.  Over time this will probably help more Americans realize that there's no one way to be a first-world country.  (There's a common misconception among Americans who haven't traveled much that all the gleaming cities in all the first world countries are similar, culturally speaking.  This is so far from the case that it's kind of laughable.)


The movie is headed for a US release soon, but if you're so inclined, you can watch the whole movie on youtube here, at least until the copyright cops take it down.  I'm also thinking of getting some people together to watch it at my house.  Let me know if you're interested.


*The film is not in Hindi but in Tamil, a language spoken primarily in the southern tip of India.  (Although only ~7% of India is Tamil, that's still ~70 million people). 
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Angry Birds is an iphone game where you use a slingshot to propel exploding birds (yes, really) at various structures containing pigs, which you're trying to kill by hitting directly or by causing the structures to collapse on them.  

The funny thing about Angry Birds is that it's actually not a great game in one sense -- while playing the game takes some skill, skill is no guarantee of success.  

The trouble is that your only control method,  the angle at which the bird is launched from the slingshot, is the input to a chaotic system with sensitive dependence on initial conditions.  If you launch the bird at an angle of 72 degrees, it hits a block off to one side and then stops.  If you launch the bird at 73 degrees, it hits the same block off to the side a little bit harder, which starts a crazy chain reaction that causes much of the structure to collapse.  If you launch the bird at 74 degrees, it hits the block even harder, and the force whacks another block way out of place, but it does so in such a way that the structure remains standing, making it even harder to hit the pigs.  Basically, it's the butterfly effect, the favorite metaphor of chaos theorists to describe phenomena like the weather where tiny changes in initial conditions make a big difference.  

Since you can't precisely aim the birds, it's difficult to control the angle -- you just know that you sometimes get good results from hitting a particular area.  

If you graphed the score you got from the full range of launch angles, it probably would have fairly chaotic properties in high-scoring regions.  It would probably look like a one-dimensional version of this, which is a map of which magnet a pendulum ends up attracted to when started from different angles:

See those messy regions?  Those are areas where your predictive power is diminished, where the score isn't up to you but instead up to something effectively outside your control.  Psychologists have a name for this -- partial reinforcement.  This basically means you only sometimes get rewarded for a behavior.  The ironic thing is that this is more effective at entraining that behavior than full reinforcement.  

There are other sports, such as bowling, that also exhibit these chaotic characteristics, but good bowlers have found a stable region in the chaos that they can hit consistently.  

Angry Birds, once you reach a basic level of prowess, is less like a game of skill and much more like something else entirely -- a slot machine.  
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I've been working on other things with the Kinect, but I do want to keep making multiple reality videos.

I got a couple of friends who do acroyoga to come over.  Here's what we made:

In case you haven't been following along:

I wrote some software to merge multiple 3D video streams captured by the Kinect into a single 3D space. Objects from each video stream are superimposed as if they occupy the same physical space, with nearby objects from one video occluding more distant ones from another. Sometimes objects overlap, creating interesting mutant forms.
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As most of you know, I've spent the vast majority of the last 2 years not working -- instead I've chosen to focus on developing other skills and experiences, including traveling the world, fixing my insomnia, improving my nutrition, developing an exercise plan that's changed my body, improved my health, and taught me lots of fun physical skills (rock climbing, snowboarding, parkour, yoga, and hang gliding), doing lots of creative projects, and getting involved with the disorganization of the Ephemerisle festival.  

Despite the fun of my laid-back adventures, I've been missing working on a big, meaty, potentially worldchanging project.  I have looked at various opportunities, but I've been hesitant to jump into anything, knowing firsthand just how much work a startup can be.

However, at this point, I'm excited enough about new possibilities created by low cost 3D computer vision that I'm eager to start something new.  Technologies like the Kinect allow people to capture the world around them in 3D, enabling them to easily bridge between the physical and virtual worlds.  How important is 3D capture?  I think it will ultimately become as important as photography.  By capturing objects and environments in 3D, you will be able to do many things you cannot do with photographs.  You will be able to rotate around objects and see them from many perspectives, or walk through real environments as virtual worlds.  It's the difference between looking at a scene and being *in* the scene.  Better yet, you will be able to seamlessly mix physical and virtual worlds -- you could upload all your favorite physical objects into an online virtual world, drop virtual annotations and objects onto a physical environment, and preview changes to the physical world (such as new furniture in your living room or new clothing on your body), among numerous other things.  While many of these things are happening already, they have not been within reach of consumers until now.  

While some of the more far-out visions for the seamless merging of physical and virtual worlds will take years to come to fruition, I'm looking at some ways that I can provide some useful tools (and make some money) in the short term.  Unlike my last company, which took on a lot of funding and became divorced from the realities of the market, I intend to dramatically shorten the cycle of market feedback.  

I'm developing a toolset that will make it as easy as possible to use a Kinect for various 3D capture applications.  I should leave the specifics out of this public post, but I encourage those of you who share an interest in the possibilities of 3D vision to contact me.  I'm already working with two potential clients.  

This is all very exciting, which is exactly what work should be.
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Google released a 500-billion word corpus of phrase appearances in English and other languages for research.  It's a fantastic tool for tracking word and phrase frequencies over time.  

For example, here are some things I found

- The resurgence of fundamentalist religion starting around 2000 is real.  See God.  Want a broader data set of religious words?  Here you go.

- I've been somewhat skeptical of books like the Fourth Turning and generational theory, but "rebellious" shows peaks every 40 years or so.  I had a conversation with some friends a while back about how the Fourth Turning people could take advantage of quantitative analysis.  I admit it's hard to pick a good word to track, as many have other uses that obscure the data we care about, or go in and out of fashion in a way that dwarfs generational effects.  

- We were bringing sexy back (or bringing it in for the first time)... until someone wrote a song about it.   Yes you, Justin Timberlake, have ruined sexy.   No... THIS is how to bring a word back.  I'm actually impressed that Myst is mentioned more now than it was in the late 1990s... perhaps once it enters the cultural consciousness it becomes more widely referenced as it is incorporated into our collective knowledge.  Or perhaps this corpus is mostly books, and Myst was mainly talked about in magazines at first.  

- America's ascendance of the publishing industry and the English language, as told by colour vs color.  

- How hipsters preceded hippies but were soon dwarfed by them

- "Cool" words like groovy have an initial peak and then sometimes rebound later.  (It's hard to find cool words that don't have other meanings... like, well, "cool".)

- Racial slur for a black person.  One peak around the Civil War, another one during 1930-1950 (why??), and another one during the Civil Rights era.  

- Google crushes googol (though google was oddly popular around 1900 for some reason)

- Hope and fear are shockingly correlated.  I supposed they must be used together a lot.  Also in the antagonism wars, love crushes hate but lose beats win.  

- Wars make people think about the future.  

Yup, large datasets are my porn.  
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I wrote some software to merge multiple 3D video streams captured by the Kinect into a single 3D space. Objects from each video stream are superimposed as if they occupy the same physical space, with nearby objects from one video occluding more distant ones from another. Sometimes objects overlap, creating interesting mutant forms.

Next, I want to make 3D-merges of cats, dancers, silk aerialists, martial arts experts, that painting Nude Descending a Staircase, that scene from Alien, and much more...

Also, I want to take a moment to send some hate in the direction of WMG for blocking the original audio track on this video (KT Tunstall's Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, which was *perfect*), forcing me to re-edit the whole thing with a new song. They need to get with the internet age and realize that they shouldn't say no to awesome free advertising.
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I've given my friend plenty of advice about the specifics of how to get around, what to bring etc, but for her going-away ceremony I wanted to give her the gift of high level experiential and spiritual advice.  Here's what I said:


1. Be a scientist investigating your soul. Peel off your exoself -- all that stuff that's wrapped around you.   Possessions, routines, people etc. Then drop your core into lots of radically different environments and see what happens.  Mix with different cultures. Mix with different paces of life and structures for each day.  Mix with different outlooks.  Mix with different companions.   Sit back.  Observe the results.  Share with your fellow scientists. (that's a fancy metaphor for blogging).   Experiment anew.  The word "experiment" is actually just a fancy word for playing so that scientists can feel like adults.  But playing is how we learn.   Be a kid again and play.

2. Feed your creative brain.  Some random ancient monument will not necessarily be directly relevant to your life goals, but it will lay down a web of neural pathways linked to art, beauty, design, inspiration, experience, and psychology, among other things.  As these pathways become denser, you'll be creating a new mind for yourself, a new way of seeing the world, that will emerge in totally unexpected ways when you come back and face the familiar.

3. Get yourself some transport.  Take a long walk or get your hands on a bike, scooter, ATV, or car.   Get outside of the self-reinforcing ego-serving tourist bubble from time to time and find some strangers.

4. Play sociocultural bingo.   You have to cover all the combinations of rich, middle class, poor, ancient, traditional, modern, urban, rural, serious, and playful, to win.

5. Inspire other women in areas where women fill culturally restricted roles.  If this is done carefully and respectfully, your independence and adventurous spirit will open their minds to a new way of living.

6. Don't log onto Facebook.  Share your experiences in longer posts.  Your experiences deserve it.

7. Keep your pack light. It's no fun to be a pack animal.  Aside from weird esoteric things, they do sell stuff just about everywhere else in the world.  You can live off the local supply chain, and then you'll weigh less.

8. Don't buy souvenirs unless they are incredibly special... otherwise you're just weighing yourself down.  (Well... unless you have a friend visiting for a week, in which case you should do things like give them a chunk of the Dead Sea to take home for you.)

9. Take photos.   Photos are little hooks that will, years later, let you pull out piles of associated memories you thought you'd lost.  Don't get obsessed with taking the perfect photo of some person or event; chances are there's something even better you'll see in half an hour.   Also, if there's a "no photography" sign, bribe the guards to take a photo of you next to it.

10. Watch your stuff and back up your data.   Given all that time you spent assembling your travel kit, it wouldn't be fair for some thief to have it instead of you.

11. Eat weird food.   Look for the place that's popular with the locals, and try it.

12. Be a sponge and soak in the adventures.   This time of your life will always be special, and its memories will always be with you.
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 Lest I be getting lazy on a Friday night, I made a 3rd Kinect video.   Here is another fun thing you can do with your own software on a 3D camera:

By taking a 3D snapshot of the room with furniture in it, I can remove the furniture and then wander in the 3d "ghost" space left behind.
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I made some improvements to my program from yesterday.  Now I can control how multiple RGB/Depth images are merged together to create a virtual 3D sculpture I can walk through.  This stuff is seriously fun.

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I believe that consumer-level 3D cameras will have a huge impact on a variety of industries and will lead to the creation of many types of new products.  I've started to play around with the Kinect using the OpenKinect hack & open source codebase.  

For my first project I created a 3D sculpture tool.  In the video, parts of the sculpted image become updated when an object in that area moves closer to the camera than any other object has been in the past.  This lets you carve images in space by moving them closer to the camera.  This took a day of intense work -- I'm planning on making some upgrades to it over the next few days to make it even more interesting.

I also would love to shoot some more videos.  In particular, I want to do the following, though I'm totally up for experimenting and playing with different things:
- People doing acrobatics
- Dancing (especially couples dancing, like waltz)
- Recreating the painting Nude Descending a Staircase (nude or not-nude).  I need a better staircase than the one in my house
- A playful cat chasing things (preferably light or multicolored cat with short hair.  I don't think the camera would do as well with cats with long black hair)
- Moving the camera through lots of houseplants, or just one that is blowing in the wind.

Also, if anyone has a recommendation for a better Mac screencapture program, I'd love to hear it.  The one I downloaded last night hiccups and causes other issues.
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After hearing about blue-blocking glasses at the Life Extension Conference, I decided to give them a try.  The basic principle behind them is that your body keys its circadian rhythm off of the presence of sunlight, specifically light in the blue wavelengths.  A lot of insomnia (the hypothesis goes) is caused by exposure to blue light well after sunset via our artificial lights and computer screens.  This light apparently confuses our circadian rhythms and causes a suppression of melatonin production, which can lead to insomnia.  There have been some studies (both in mice and in human shift-workers) coming out linking a lack of melatonin to a variety of cancers. 

I've found melatonin to be useful as a sleep aid, but the idea of using blue-blocking glasses to naturally increase melatonin production earlier in the night seems even more appealing as it's less of a brute force method. 

Here's my experience after trying it for a few nights:

First, the world is ugly while wearing the glasses.  Each type of light is a different sickly shade of orange or yellow, and when they're both lighting an object, the combination of colors in the light and shadow areas is unpleasant and irritable.  It's like some bad '70s nightmare.

The color gamuts of the camera and computer monitor are insufficient to capture the rancid sickliness of these colors, no matter how much I try to manipulate the white balance or use Lightroom's advanced color management. 

The world with blue-blocking glasses  The world with blue-blocking glasses
The world with blue-blocking glasses  The world with blue-blocking glasses

Especially on the first day, this miscolored world made me irritable.  It's become less annoying with further uses though.  One frustration that doesn't go away is that the glasses make you blind to a lot of information on the computer.  Graphs will have lines missing, blue buttons will be invisible, unvisited and visited web links will be the same color.  It gives me more appreciation for what red-green colorblind people have to deal with. 

However, on the plus side, they do appear to work.  While I haven't noticed much decrease in the time it takes me to get to bed, I have noticed that it makes me get up earlier and with less grogginess.  That alone makes them worth using on certain days.  Scientifically this makes sense, as suppressing blue light in the evening causes the brain circuits responsible for controlling circadian rhythms to start (and thus end) the night phase earlier. 

While wearing the glasses can be a pain, there are some easier things that you can do to help your body have a more natural rhythm:
- Buy red LED night lights.  Turning on bright bathroom lights in the middle of the night totally messes up your melatonin production.
- Get red compact fluorescent lamps for your bathroom, bedroom, and living room, and use them exclusively during the last hour or two that you're awake. 
- Turn your monitors' brightness as far down as possible during the last couple of hours of the day.

I'll be doing more quantitative research on the glasses over the next month or two.

If you want to buy the glasses, you can buy them from for $70 or from Amazon for $10.  your choice.  :-) 

For $10, they're worth a try. 
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As I was doing followup research to make my final decisions on which blood tests to take as part of my self-tracking project, I stumbled upon some difficulties.

I was deciding between two labs for one particular test, one of which had a sketchy-looking logo (Doctors' Data).  I typed its name into Google, and Google suggested the auto-complete "Doctors Data fraud".  Oh my.  I spent a good bit of time poking around for the next couple of hours, and learned a lot of disturbing things. 

Apparently there are certain tests at certain testing labs that are commonly known to produce "abnormal" readings for just about everyone who takes the tests.  Scam nutritionists and other shady alternative medicine practitioners know this and will tend to use these companies to produce official-looking documents to back up their claims to the patients.  (Every lab that the Scientologist nutritionists at HealthNOW used is on the list)  There's plenty of morally conflicted economic self-interest going on.   Apparently there was a big lawsuit a while back, when a toxic metals test with poor methodology led a woman to choose a dangerous chelation therapy that killed her.  

It's hard to tell how far I should let this mistrust spread.  Only one of the tests I was considering (the IgG/IgE food allergy test) is on the list of dubious tests.  However, should I not trust other tests from the same lab?  Should I not trust Direct Labs for offering these tests, or should I think of them more like an Amazon that offers everything for sale, good and bad.  Can I trust the site (quackwatch) that has come up with the labs-not-to-trust list, or is the site's owner being too reactionary?  It's kind of maddening, like this picture except less funny:

I think I'm going to pull back on the couple of tests from Metametrix and Genova that I was considering, but I'm going to keep the bulk of the remainder.  If many labs offer a particular test (and they're not just rebranding a third party lab's test), it's probably a legitimate test.  In addition, if I get results from a test that imply that I should do something radical, I'll talk with a doctor and have the test redone by different labs.  I should also accept that some of my money in doing these tests will likely be wasted, and some of the changes I make will be pointless, but on the whole it's most likely still a lot better than doing nothing. 

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I'd like to talk about a serious shortcoming of the medical system in treating a category of illnesses, and a simple, self-experimental approach that allows you to potentially treat these illnesses cheaply and easily.



"Diffuse Conditions" is a term I made up to describe health conditions that have numerous potential causes and numerous potential treatments.  These conditions include insomnia, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and anxiety. 

Diffuse conditions are hard to treat via the medical system.  Due to the economic, research, and procedural constraints of the medical system, patients are often steered toward a narrow set of potential treatments.  Moreover, these treatments are generally expensive drugs or procedures rather than simple practical advice.  In addition, because of the prescription system, patients are only able to try one potential treatment per doctor visit, and since diffuse conditions have many potential cures, that potentially means a lot of doctor visits to find one that works.  In addition, the diffuse conditions are sometimes bad enough to affect a patient's quality of life, but not bad enough to merit "medical attention".  Doctors are generally focused on fixing people when they are broken as opposed to tuning them for optimal function.  Basically, all this means that someone with a diffuse condition is likely to have a lot of difficulty finding a solution, and will end up spending a lot of money (either directly or via the tragedy of the commons system known as health insurance) trying to find a solution.  At this point, healthcare is already up to 17% of our GDP in America, so we need to figure out a cheaper approach.  I believe medical experts can be useful in treating diffuse conditions, but they need to empower patients to engage in a highly iterative cure discovery process. 

The solution, I believe, is to data-mine your own life.  This is a five-step process.
1. Get quantitative tools for measuring your performance.
2. Try various interventions. 
3. Track performance and interventions over time
4. Look for correlations to suggest ways you can improve your condition
5. Share your findings online so that others can see if your successful interventions work for them. 


I'm going to provide a personal example of this to show how it can be done: 

Sleep videos:

I've always had trouble with insomnia.  For a long time, I just ignored it as a fact of life.  In my early twenties, I decided to finally do something about it and get a sleep study.  I went to one of the best sleep clinics in the country (Stanford).  They found some minor issues (sleep apnea so mild that it could not be designated "mild sleep apnea") but nothing medically actionable.  Unfortunately, that gave me little to act on.  A sleep study requires you to sleep in a hospital with an unbelievably large amount of equipment attached to your head.  Sleep studies are so expensive that any given person is only likely to do one or two of them.  So unfortunately a sleep study is not a good way of determining anything useful.

I got the idea to use a cheap near-infrared video camera (Sony sells analog "nightshot" video cameras that can see in the dark) to do my own sleep study at home by doing time-lapse recordings of myself sleeping.  I ended up with fascinating videos like these, which show the range of strange things that happen during the third of our lives when we aren't conscious.

Here's what I learned and did about it:

- I move around a lot while I sleep.  Limb movements were documented on the sleep study.  They appeared to correlate either with my posture (specifically, lying on my back) or with dreaming.  The limb movements appeared to be impacting my quality of sleep as they appeared to often line up with or precede awakenings as seen on the sleep study.  By looking at several night, I was able to see that the limb movements most often appeared when I was dreaming, regardless of posture.  Also, as any good scientist knows, it's good to have a control group for comparison.  As a result, I taped myself sleeping next to three different people, and found that I moved around substantially more than any of them did.
- If I'm sharing a bed, it needs to be king-sized if I am to sleep well.  The video shows many instances of sleep-disturbance ping-pong, in which one person shifting causes the other person to shift, and that's in a king bed.  In a smaller bed, it's even worse. 
- If I'm sharing a bed, everyone needs their own quilt.  Quilt-sharing dramatically worsens sleep disturbance ping-pong. 
- Morning light dramatically lowers sleep quality.  The morning light stimulates production of hormones to help me wake up, but this is not useful if I'm going to bed many hours after sunset.  As a result, I started using heavy curtains to help myself get a full night's sleep. 
- I don't have Restless Leg Syndrome.  Based on the movements, I thought I might have it, so I got a doctor to prescribe the two most commonly used RLS medications.  Both of them made my sleep worse. 
- Posture interventions didn't change my quality of sleep.  It appears that I need to spend some time sleeping on my left side, my right side, and my back.  If I choose one particular posture to fall asleep in, I will spend most of the tail end of that night in the other two postures.  If I force myself into a particular posture (eg by wearing a shirt and stuffing a pillow into the back), I fight it intensely.  I think this may have to do with circulation; no part of my body likes to be compressed for long periods of time.  I dislike extended sitting when I'm awake.
- Anti-apnea technologies don't help reduce the movements.  CPAP is loud, messy, and obnoxious, and actually made the movements worse.


Sleeping pills:

I also did an evaluation of just about every type of sleeping pill I could get my hands on, and rated how effective they were at getting me to sleep and how much of a "hangover" effect they have the next day.  I evaluated them via self reports, and sometimes with the videos, for how much they affected my sleep quality.  Your results may vary.  Here's what I found:

- Most over-the-counter sleeping pills (Tylenol PM, Nytol, Sominex, Benadryl) are bad.  They tend to be based on the antihistamine Diphenhydramine HCl.  While they are great at getting me to sleep, they worsen apnea (probably by relaxing the throat muscles too much) and they seem to make me stupider the next day.  I was excited when earlier this year, a study came out showing that my "it makes you stupider" observation isn't just anecdotal. 
- Alcohol (even a single drink) is a bad sleeping pill. 

- Valerian was okay (decent effectiveness but some hangover), as was Lunesta. 
- Melatonin was best for everyday use, and it's available over the counter.  Your body produces it naturally, and you're probably already deficient in it if you are around bright lights before you go to sleep.  I found 1mg was sufficient to do the trick.  At >= 3 mg, I started to have some hangover effect the next day and some habituation issues (making it harder to go to bed the next night without it).  However, at 1mg, I had very little hangover.  I now tend to take it if I haven't been able to fall asleep after 45min.
- Ambien is useful as a "nuclear option" when I'm taking a transatlantic flight or on a packed overnight bus.  It has some hangover, but it's shockingly effective.  It has the bonus effect of helping reset your circadian rhythm to a new time zone if you take it at the bedtime you desire for the new time zone.  Ambien has been known to have some substantial side effects, like sleepwalking, in certain people.   In addition, before putting you to sleep it provides you with a feeling not unlike drinking an entire six-pack of beer in one sitting.  I wouldn't be surprised if it eventually ended up as an illegal drug. 


Quantitative interventions

While the above research yielded a lot of gains, I was able to learn even more when I started using automatic sleep-tracking technologies like the Zeo.  Zeo uses an EEG headband to monitor your brainwaves.  It can determine if you're awake, dreaming, in light sleep, or in deep sleep, by looking at them.  From there, it comes up with derivative measures like sleep latency (how long it takes to fall asleep) and sleep efficiency.  It also has an adaptive alarm so that you can be woken up at the end of a sleep cycle instead of mid-dream.  It's accuracy isn't perfect, but it's fairly good.  (When I'm awake, it registers me as awake at least 90% of the time).  Because Zeo only takes data in 2-minute increments, it cannot notice short awakenings.  Hopefully, the next version will have an accelerometer or a bone conduction microphone to detect apnea, limb movements, and snoring.

In addition to the Zeo's data, I manually wrote down how happy, focused, and stressed I was each day, as well as a detailed 2-sentence description of what I did.  From there, I derived several more quantitative measurements, like whether I exercised, if I slept alone, if I had sex etc.  Then I dumped it all in a big spreadsheet and looked for correlations between measures of sleep quality and my activities.  Several useful correlations popped out.

Here's a subset of what I found after gathering four months of data:

One issue that has always bugged me is sleep latency -- the amount of time it takes me to get to sleep.  Here's what was correlated with lower sleep latency:

- Get exercise
(though don't do it too late in the day).  I had heavy exercise on 66% of the low latency nights vs 42% of the high latency nights.
- Going to bed earlier.  This is counterintuitive, as I'd expect myself to be more tired later in the night.   (Average 1:16am bedtime for low latency nights vs, 2:04am for high latency)  From personal experience, I know sleep latency gets much longer again if I go to bed before midnight.  There's basically an ideal window.
- Don’t have intense new social connections in the evening   I'm not about to make my life more boring to sleep better, but I can be more proactive about exercising or taking melatonin to help myself sleep.   (10% of low latency nights had intense new social connections, whereas 38% of high latency nights did.  The same applies to arguing at night.
- Don’t sleep alone  Having someone sleep next to me helped me get to sleep faster. 
(52% of low latency nights were with a partner, while 28% of high latency nights with partner)  Just make sure the bed is big enough!
- Have evening sex 
The effect was astonishing.  (22% of low latency nights had evening sex, vs 0% of high latency nights)  Even morning/afternoon sex has an impact (31% of low latency nights had morning/afternoon sex vs 22% of high latency nights)


Digging through the data more, I discovered other interesting things. 
Exercise turns out to be good for a lot of things:

- Earlier to sleep (1:37 vs 1:52)
- Increased total sleep (436 vs 400 min  (+36min))
- Reduced sleep latency (22 min vs 25 min (-3min))
- Increased REM sleep (153 vs 137 min (+16min))
- Happier, more engaged, less stress that day (6.9 vs 6.1, 6.5 vs 5.9, 3.3 vs 4.0 on 1-10 scale)
- Happiness/engagement/stress benefits even carry over to next day (6.6 vs 6.3, 6.4 vs 6.1, 3.5 vs 3.8)

This is one of the things that encouraged me to start getting daily exercise.


Correlation vs causation:

As any good scientist knows, correlation does not imply causation.  In regular terms, if two things tend to happen together, it doesn't mean one directly causes the other.  There could be a third thing that causes both of them.  Thus, doing one may not cause the other.

For example, the correlation between having a sleeping partner and shorter sleep latency could be explained for many reasons.  When I have a sleeping partner, I'm more likely to have sex before bed, spend evenings out, cuddle before bed, and not work or browse the internet late at night.  Any of those could be the actual cause.  However, doing that kind of multivariate analysis requires a lot more data, as, for example, there are only a handful of nights where I had sex before bed but no sleeping partner.  I could run a controlled experiment, but at some point I have to stop being a scientist and live my life.  "No sex tonight honey, I need more data for the control group" is a great way to ruin a relationship. :-)  In the end it's good enough to know that being in a healthy relationship helps me sleep better, regardless of the mechanism.


Application to other areas:

As I mentioned in the beginning. this technique of personal data mining does not just apply to sleep; it can be used against things like irritable bowel syndrome.  I tracked what I ate every day for a month, and noted if I had gas or diarrhea.  From there I could correlate the consumption of various foods with digestive issues.  By avoiding those foods, I've substantially reduced instances of IBS. 



Overall, by paying personal attention to numerous factors and making use of some self-tracking technologies, I was able to make lots of improvement to my quality of sleep.  While medical advice and technology was useful, the ultimate evaluation of the effectiveness of everything was up to me.  I had to be willing to self-track a variety of things, including things that had no known connection to sleep, and vary my life to include different behaviors.  Most of the interventions I tried didn't work, and what worked for me may not work for you.  

I think if these approaches are going to be adopted broadly, a few things need to happen:

- Patients' relationships with medical professionals need to change.  Patients need to become active partners in solving health conditions.  This means that interactions with medical professionals need to be longer and more frequent, perhaps with automatic sharing of health data between visits.  Given the cost of medical degrees and the way doctor visits are billed, it likely won't be doctors that would be doing this.  Insurance probably won't pay for it anyway. 
- Data collection needs to be super easy.  Techniques for automating data collection are great, and any manual data collection should be available via a wide variety of methods so that everyone has a method they find easy -- eg a phone app, text messaging, paper forms that can be scanned or photographed to extract the data, websites etc. 
- Wikis and social networks need to make the sharing of potential remedies easy.  Sites like CureTogether do a good job of giving people a space to share potential remedies.  Voting systems help ensure that suggested remedies aren't totally off base, and these potential remedies are really just meant as raw material for experimentation so it doesn't matter if many of them don't work.  With experimentation, you'll find the ones that work for you. 
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(Background post -- I've tried lots of things to improve my posture but none of them have worked because as soon as I stop paying conscious attention to my posture, I slouch.  However, I recently worked my tailbone area to the point of soreness, and instantly had really good posture for the next day.)

I haven't been able to precisely pinpoint the exercise that made the muscles around my tailbone sore in such a way that my posture instantly improved, but I did find other muscles that do the same trick.  I've tried this a couple of times, and it works. 

Here's the exercise

Basically, it's an extension of the erector spinae muscles in the lower back.

To help push the muscle harder, I'm holding a 10lb medicine ball behind my head while I do it.  (My rock climbing gym has a small, err, regular boring gym inside it). 

This is awesome.  I've been annoyed by having poor posture my whole life, and the answer might be as simple as an exercise that takes a couple of minutes three times a week.  Before you run off to do this, note that numerous websites warn against letting your lower back curve during this exercise, hyperextending your back, or pushing too hard too soon.

If you don't have a gym membership, here's something you can do at home that works the same muscles.  I can't speak to whether this improves posture as well, but it feels similar. 
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I already self-track numerous metrics, such as weight, body fat %, cholesterol, sleep, stress, and happiness.  However, the Life Extension Conference helped me realize that there are far more things that I should track.  Here's why:

- You might discover that you are abnormally low or high in a particular metric, and this knowledge will allow you to quickly and cheaply take corrective action that will improve your quality of life or prevent you from developing a disease.
- Although it is useful to know how well you stand relative to the rest of the people your age and gender, knowing how you are doing relative to a past version of yourself is also very helpful as it can indicate some physiological change that has taken place.  For example, the PSA test, which tests for evidence of prostate cancer, is notoriously inaccurate, but it has been found that a significant increase in PSA over time is much more predictive.
- Frequently collecting data on a particular metric allows you to do self-experimentation to see what affects that particular metric.  The more frequent the testing, the more we are able to learn about ourselves.  The self-experimentation approach is especially good when trying to deal with diffuse conditions that have a range of possible causes, such as insomnia, allergies, anxiety, and depression.

So what is worth tracking?   Here's my first cut at things I might want to check periodically:

Physical performance:

Cardiovascular fitness:

- One of the biggest indicators of cardiovascular health is something called VO2Max, which is the maximum rate of uptake of oxygen by your lungs.  Actual VO2Max testing requires a doctor and lots of specialized equipment.  However, there is a way of indirectly testing VO2Max that's very simple, very accurate, and just about free.  It's called a beep test or shuttle run, depending on which side of the Atlantic you grew up on.  You basically run between two cones 20m apart at a particular rate, and the rate gradually increases until you can't make it in time.  


- I'm tempted to measure my performance on a particularly hard song on Dance Dance Revolution, but perhaps something simple, boring, and technology-free like the Hexagon Drill would be better, especially if I want to be able to do the same test in 20 years.

Strength & Power:

- Max # of pull ups.   (In high school I could do 1-3, now I can do 12-14. :-) )
- Max bench press for some # of repetitions.  
- Standing long jump
- Standing vertical jump


- I could do the sit & reach...  (ah, memories of high school)
- This site also recommends a trunk rotation test and groin flexibility test

Physical health:

- Body composition (body fat %, water %, total weight).  My current scale has decent but probably somewhat inaccurate measurement of this.  
- Glucose levels fasting and after eating a high-carb meal.  This is easy to measure.
- Sleep quality (sleep latency, time in each sleep stage etc.  Technologies like Zeo and FitBit allow for some measure of this.  

I can also order specific tests for levels of various minerals, fats, and other components.  While these tests are somewhat expensive, I really can get by doing them every 1-5 years, with possibly more frequent tests around things I'm trying to change.  The way my health insurance works (high deductible, low monthly premiums) I would order these tests myself from sites like and (their testing and supplements business is way more respected than their monthly magazine).  


The above table, and the decisions of what to take, took a couple of hours of research.  Doing all the tests I want to do will take about $500, and I estimate that I'll spend a fraction of that each subsequent year.  I'm still not sure about the food antibody IgG vs IgE tests -- I have heard that some of them are highly inaccurate.  

Mental performance:

This is a tricky one.  There are so many possible things to measure, some of which are extremely difficult to quantify repeatably.  In addition, while I like the automatic data gathering of computer software, anything I use has to still be available in 20 years so that I have consistent methods of measurement.

I could use a brain training suite not to train my brain (only a subset of the tests appear to generalize to other situations) but to periodically test it.  The best brain software appears to be the web-hosted, but I'm worried that the tests may change over time (the site brags that they're making changes and improvements *all the time*).  In addition, the service costs around $80 a year, which is a lot if I only use it a couple of times a year to assess mental performance.  I started looking for desktop software and quickly realized that the low/mid end desktop software market died several years ago.  There's very little, and most of it is crap.  One alternative would be to get iphone/ipad software.  (I'm imagining myself 20 years from now, turning on some ancient hardware to run some games.)  However, getting access to the performance data will be an issue.  

In terms of specific things to test, it would be interesting to cover:
- Working memory
- VIsual attention and tracking
- Ability to focus with distractions
- Multitasking
- Visual/Spatial processing
- Audio processing
- Logic
- Mental flexibility (Boggle?)
- Face recognition (lots of these exist)
* Idea generation / creativity (Ability to plan and prioritize short and long term goals simultaneously)
* Organization
* Self-awareness of emotional states
* Emotional processing
* Recognition of social cues
* Reading comprehension
* Performance under stress
* Willpower 

The eight starred items do not appear to be easily testable in an automated way with the software I've found.  There are a couple of ways of measuring willpower, such as resisting a particular temptation or enduring a painful but harmless sensation.  

Any suggestions on brain testing technique (or any of the things I'm considering, for that matter) are highly appreciated.

Also, if you're interested in doing a testing/discussion group with me (these things are more fun with friends anyway), let me know.
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We originally planned on hiking up Half Dome yesterday, but we changed our minds after an all-night thunderstorm that was followed by a hailstorm the next morning.  We did get to see the park full of clouds, and that ended up being quite beautiful:

Yosemite on a rainy day  Yosemite on a rainy day
Yosemite on a rainy day  Yosemite on a rainy day
Yosemite on a rainy day  Yosemite on a rainy day  Yosemite on a rainy day
Yosemite on a rainy day  Yosemite on a rainy day
Yosemite on a rainy day  Yosemite on a rainy day 
Yosemite on a rainy day  Yosemite on a rainy day

Full flickr set
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In case you were wondering, this is what Yosemite valley looks like in near-infrared.  Near-infrared is different from thermal infrared, which shows temperature.  In near-infrared, which is commonly used in see-in-the-dark security cameras, foliage is very light, while water is very dark and murky.  I brought a near-infrared camera along on my trip to Yosemite yesterday. 

Yosemite in infrared
Yosemite in infrared
Yosemite in infrared  Yosemite in infrared
Yosemite in infrared  Yosemite in infrared
Yosemite in infrared  Yosemite in infrared  Yosemite in infrared

Full set on flickr.

If you like these, I also have some near-infrared pictures of the japanese gardens in San Francisco.
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After having a late sushi dinner in which the arrangement of the fish in the chirashi eerily resembled Chthulu, my co-adventurer and I found our way into the post-midnight mists of the former military base at the northwest corner of San Francisco, seeking adventure.  We started under the Golden Gate Bridge and made our way out into the darkness, wandering our way through old World War II gun turrets, searching for the narrow, steep path to the beach.  We stood at the edge of a precipice, doused by the sounds of crashing waves but enshrouded in so much mist that we could see only grayish nothingness below.  After playing with long exposures and light, we descended to the beach.  The only occasionally visible bridge beckoned in the distance, and we made our way back towards it, stopping occasionally to dare the waves to hit us.  By then it was close to 2am, and a few miles away, a city of hundreds of thousands was finishing up its partying and starting to hail cabs home.  We were completely in solitude, as if we had traveled hours to some far-off place.

WTF Presidio  WTF Presidio
Golden Gate Bridge after midnight  Golden Gate Bridge after midnight
Presidio graffiti  Presidio lightpainting in WWII turrets 

The Golden Gate Bridge... beautiful Art Deco icon, overphotographed into near-banality by tourists and professionals alike.  It's still awesome.

Presidio in the middle of the night  Golden Gate Bridge after midnight
Lightpainting on a beach near the Golden Gate Bridge  Lightpainting on a beach near the Golden Gate Bridge
Presidio lightpainting in WWII turrets

Full set on Flickr
mattbell: (Default)
This is fascinating:

As a child I very much shied away from and often ridiculed the "jock" approach to things.  "Jock" was often synonymous with "dumb".  This probably was aided by the fact that the cool kids in my school were not the jocks but the academic overachievers.  (I went to a well-funded public school that was full of Stanford professors' kids).  However, it's interesting to come around and realize that the jock approach can often have a lot of value.  It should be seen not as an antithesis to the "nerd" approach, but as a separate skill that's worth using when appropriate.

Back to the video...  The weightlifter, Kirk Karwoski, has spent years building up his strength via a variety of exercises and fine-tuning his proprioception so that he knows exactly how far he can push himself.  It's not the most intellectually demanding work, but it involves an incredible amount of willpower, perseverance, and an ability to be extremely in tune with his body.  When it comes time to do the record-setting lift, the movement sequences and possible contingencies are all completely mapped out into muscle memory and learned procedures, requiring little to no deliberative conscious input.  When there's 1000 pounds of weight on his back, he has to know exactly what he's doing.  He also has to set aside any doubt, minor pains, or other mental obstacles in his way.  All the animal grunting serves a purpose -- it gets him purely focused on the task and ready to push his abilities to the limit.  Nike understood this when their marketing department, after I'm sure was a long and extensive deliberation, chose the slogan of "just do it".

What can "nerds" learn from the jock approach?  When is it applicable outside scenarios where large amounts of mass must be moved using human muscle power alone?  I've noticed a lot of objectively highly intelligent people suffer from indecisiveness, hyper-rationality, procrastination, getting lost in details, timidity, lack of focus, poor body awareness, and poor body care (lack of exercise, poor diet).  Often these issues are over-expressions of a trait that is good in moderation; indecisiveness is overactive comparative analytical skill, procrastination is overactive perfectionism, etc,  However, these issues prevent their intelligence from translating into making a significant impact in the real world.  I believe that having some fluency in the "jock" approach, and knowing when to apply it, can go a long way toward correcting hyperactive "nerd" abilities. 
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Balsa Man turned out to be a good bit of fun -- if delivers a slice of the Burning Man experience in a compact and easily accessible morsel.  There were a lot of Burning Man in-jokes to go around.

- Many of the attendees are Burning Man veterans who were very involved in big projects there.  I met a woman who did a little tiny Center Camp -- she worked on the big one's build crew for six years.

- The guy who used to do the Piss Clear underground magazine at Burning Man did a Dress Warm underground magazine at Balsa Man.

- Someone else brought a mini Crude Awakening too.  He gave me a fuel-air contraption to help my structure burn more impressively.

- Small, unpredictable fires and fireworks shows close-up are more intense and impressive than big predictable ones far away. 

All in all, it was fun, though I do miss going to the full-size Burning Man and will definitely go next year.

My Cruder Awakening project  Balsa Man 2010!

Paul Addis wannabes try to burn the man early

Balsa Man 2010!  Balsa Man 2010!

Balsa Man 2010!  Balsa Man 2010!  Burning my Cruder Awakening

Also, it's actually really gratifying to set your own work on fire:

See everyone's photos on flickr


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