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There are already implantable glucose monitors.  Why not create one that causes harmless pain if blood glucose rises beyond a certain level, with the amount of pain increasing commensurate with the level?  People modify their behaviors quickly to avoid pain if there's a clear and rapid connection between the pain and a pain-causing stimulus.

Devices that intentionally cause pain might be difficult to get FDA-approved, but it seems like techniques like gastric bypass essentially accomplish the same thing, with far more side effects an irreversible changes. 

I feel like I have a natural version of this glucose-pain connection; when I eat many kinds of junk food, I start to feel sick within minutes.  It's trained me to not eat junk food, even if it once tasted good at the time of eating.
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On the ski lift today:

Me:  The fall wasn't bad. I had knee pads.
Woman: You have knee pads?
Me: Yeah.  I also have a tailbone pad and body armor -- that's wrist, elbow, shoulder, back, and chest pads -- and a helmet.
Woman: Wow... you must have been in a terrible accident.
Me:  (laughs)  No.  I want to avoid being in a terrible accident.  That's why I bought all that stuff.  
Woman:  Oh.  That makes sense.


People don't get it.  You can do more cool things in your life if you lower the cost of failure.  I was able to learn to snowboard faster because I was less afraid to fall and because the falls I did take bruised me up less, allowing me to spend more time on the slopes and less time sitting around feeling achey.  

This is one of those useful general purpose life lessons.  "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is true, but many kids are likely to ignore it because it sounds burdensome.  However, if it's reframed as "You can do more fun things if you also take care of these precautions", it's more positive and gets the point across better.  

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 I posted earlier about my experimentation with blue-blocking glasses to help improve my sleep.  I ended up not enjoying the experience of wearing the glasses, but I realized that I could achieve similar results by setting up red and orange colored night lights in my house.  This was especially nice to add to my bathroom, as it now allows me to use the bathroom in the middle of the night without forcing myself awake again with bright white lights.  You can get these lights for cheap ($5) at Home Depot.  

While this took care of the ambient room light, it didn't take care of the bright white of my computer screen.  For that I used f.lux, which reduced the blue light coming from the screen. I used f.lux on the strongest setting (Tungsten lighting) and I was surprised by how quickly my brain's white balance adjusted to the new color, especially when the surrounding room lights were red and orange.

This combination of colored room lights and f.lux seemed to work well at helping me get to bed, but not quite as well as wearing the blue-blocking glasses.  

However, based on a couple of weeks of data (which admittedly isn't much), the partial blue blocking setup using the colored lights and f.lux starting 2-3 hours before bedtime did not substantially affect my sleep latency -- it averaged 19min instead of 23min.  What did change substantially was my bedtime.  I found I shifted to going to bed an average of 28 minutes earlier and waking up an average of 5 minutes earlier.  The results actually seemed much bigger until I realized I had seasonal fluctuations in bedtime, so I went back and compared only with data from February, which had a similar day length.  I'm getting more sleep and feeling more well rested, which is good.  

Now I'm going to play with Nocturne, a program that gives me much more full control of screen brightness and appearance than f.lux.  Nocturne lets me set my display's entire color space, invert white to black, and do lots of other tricky things.  So far the best compromise between minimal blue light and maximum readability I've found is to just use the "monochrome" and "tint colors" settings on Nocturne, with the "white" color set to pure red and "black" set to black.    It's not the sort of thing I'd want to use for photo editing, but it works fine for working with text and some web browsing.  I'll report back in a couple of weeks on how that goes.


At some point I'm not sure mow much more sleep self-experimentation is worth it.   I do know I still move a lot more than the average sleeper, I'd like to get rid of my remaining mild snoring, and I'd like to improve my recovery time on days when I have to get up extra early, but I don't know how much improvement to my waking life I'll get from further changes.  For now I'll keep gathering data, since the cost to do so from a time perspective is very low.  

It would be nice to declare some sort of victory at some point, but this is one of those infinite games where improvements may continue but the margins will diminish, and true value lies in correctly answering the question of when it's no longer worth the trouble to try to improve further.  
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The 23 and Me discount is back! Get your genome scanned for only $99! "DIYgenomics: @23andMe $99 discount returns through black friday; code B84YAG to be live 10 AM Wednesday for the new v3 chip" (total cost with subscription is around $160. Normal price is around $600) Lots of us did this 6 months ago and had great experiences.  Several of us have made lasting changes in our lives as a result.   Here's what we did:  

This has got to warm the hell out of any marketing manager's heart... here we have a customer enthusiastically blogging about a coupon for a product he already bought, imploring all his friends to buy this product ASAP because he cares so much about it and linking to a self-compiled list of positive product testimonials.  People throw gobs of money at ad agencies in the hope of generating a sliver of this level of enthusiasm.  
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I'm not normally a scaremonger, but this analysis of possible health risks on the new backscatter x-ray systems raises some interesting issues.  I'm curious if those of you with lots of physics and/or biology knowledge have any thoughts on this.  

From the letter:

Unlike other scanners, these new devices operate at relatively low beam energies (28keV). The majority of their energy is delivered to the skin and the underlying tissue. Thus, while the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.

The X-ray dose from these devices has often been compared in the media to the cosmic ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray. However, this comparison is very misleading: both the air travel cosmic ray exposure and chest X- rays have much higher X-ray energies and the health consequences are appropriately understood in terms of the whole body volume dose. In contrast, these new airport scanners are largely depositing their energy into the skin and immediately adjacent tissue, and since this is such a small fraction of body weight/vol, possibly by one to two orders of magnitude, the real dose to the skin is now high.
So the beam is at a lower frequency (less chance of cell damage) and the radiation only touches a small part of the body (less chance of cell damage) but the radiation intensity near the skin is much higher (much higher chance of cell damage).  Who knows what the numbers balance out to.  

I poked around a bit and didn't find any animal studies.  Surely they would have taken a population of rats and given them several hundred scans each before subjecting millions humans to it?  

I don't really care about them seeing me nude; in fact I'm tempted to write "HI TSA!" on my chest with aluminum tape. I understand the TSA has an excellent sense of humor.  
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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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Seth Roberts has been doing self-experimentation for a couple of decades on top of his professional professorial pursuits.  He recently wrote up the fascinating article "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of my self-experimentation", which states:

Over 12 years, my self-experimentation found new and useful ways to improve sleep, mood, health, and
weight. Why did it work so well? First, my position was unusual. I had the subject-matter knowledge of
an insider, the freedom of an outsider, and the motivation of a person with the problem. I did not need to
publish regularly. I did not want to display status via my research. Second, I used a powerful tool.
Self-experimentation about the brain can test ideas much more easily (by a factor of about 500,000) than
conventional research about other parts of the body. When you gather data, you sample from a power-
law-like distribution of progress. Most data helps a little; a tiny fraction of data helps a lot. My subject-
matter knowledge and methodological skills (e.g., in data analysis) improved the distribution from which
I sampled (i.e., increased the average amount of progress per sample). Self-experimentation allowed me
to sample from it much more often than conventional research. Another reason my self-experimentation
was unusually effective is that, unlike professional science, it resembled the exploration of our ancestors,
including foragers, hobbyists, and artisans.

His points about rapid iteration of hypotheses and the power-law distribution of scientific progress are fascinating.  The modern scientific environment makes the use of human intuition through play much more difficult.  (Among other things, no animal subjects ethics board would let you have some mice to "play" with.)  He also makes some great points about how medical researchers who do not have contact with patients are less likely to make practical breakthroughs -- I've noticed similar issues occur in companies, where engineers and other employees who do not meet with customers regularly often end up making less useful features than those who do.

Seth also points out that it's likely doctors will decline in their role as gatekeepers, a trend I would agree is likely to happen.  This may lead to more quack medicine and other issues, but I believe alternate reputation systems can be developed to handle these concerns.

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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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The Life Extension Conference last weekend was an overwhelmingly large pile of information, much of it contradictory.  One of the most amusing parts was watching a panel of five experts offer advice on what supplements to take.  I've spent much of today sorting through the material from the conference and doing follow-up research to validate it.

Here's a high-level picture of what was talked about at the conference:

- The conference was attended by people (including me) who believe that the right approach to health and longevity is a proactive one; it makes sense to take action while you are young and healthy instead of waiting for your body and mind to deteriorate before doing anything.
- Testing is important.  By taking blood tests, you can determine if you are getting enough of various vitamins and minerals, keeping inflammation and stress down, maintaining a proper hormone balance etc. 
- Diet is very important, and has broad-reaching impacts on longevity and the rate of aging. 
- Physical and mental health are very tightly linked. 
- There are a lot of new devices coming out that let you automatically track various metrics of performance, like calories burned, movement, sleep quality, stress levels etc.
- Meditation now has a lot of solid research backing up its effectiveness at reducing stress, improving cardiovascular health, reducing chronic inflammation, improving mental focus, and other measures of health.  Apparently as little as 5-10 minutes of meditation a day can have an impact.
- It's worth getting detailed baseline physical and mental health data on yourself now so that you can detect changes as you get older.  This data also lets you run self-experiments and see the results.  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.

As for the panel of nutrition experts, the only things they could agree on (and perhaps the only advice worth following without lots of research) were:
- Take fish oil supplements
- Take 2000IU of Vitamin D a day (almost everyone is deficient)
- Take probiotics (food or pill)

The panel did have a near-consensus that people should take Deprenyl, a relatively unknown drug that appears to halt or reverse age-related brain decline.  The drug, which is typically prescribed for Parkinson's disease, acts on a variety of neurotransmitters.

I've got several posts worth of information to sort out.  I also need to write up my talk. 
mattbell: (Default)
A while back I wrote about how neural rerouting around injuries is fast -- your body, normally slow to change habits, changes them very quickly when the avoidance of pain is involved.  I hypothesized that this phenomenon could be used to change other habits, such as posture.

Sometime in the last couple of days I worked out the muscles in my lower back, specifically the area around my tailbone, to the point of soreness.  I've noticed that this has made me pay attention to the muscles there and consequently stand up straighter.  This is most excellent, as posture has seemed to be almost impossible to change with conscious effort. 

Now I just have to figure out how to make this repeatable -- I want to periodically work this muscle to the point of soreness so that I learn to stand up straight all the time.  It's time to experiment at the gym.  Failing that, maybe I should just invent something mildly uncomfortable that I can stick on the skin over my tailbone. 

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. 
mattbell: (Default)
I'll be speaking at Personalized Life Extension 2010, Oct. 9-10 -- 

The focus of the conference is on actions we can each take now to extend our lives, and delay or prevent the diseases of aging.  Preventative care is far cheaper in the long run than only paying attention to your health once you're already diseased.  (It's not affiliated with the Life Extension brand or the Life Extension Foundation)  It should be a fascinating group of speakers and attendees, and I'd love see you all there. 

Christine is tracking influence vectors using hedonistic discount codes.  Mine is, unsurprisingly, "MATT".  It gets you a $100 discount. 
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A large group of my friends did the 23 and Me genetic screening back in May during the $100 discount day.  A couple of months back, we got together to share and discuss our results.  People have been asking me "is it worth the money?"

Here are some things people have found (names removed to protect identity):
- One person is at substantially increased risk for prostate cancer.  Consequently, he has started taking lycopene supplements and cutting down on red meat consumption.  He's now extra motivated to keep taking Vitamin D supplements as high levels of Vitamin D also decrease the risk. 
- One person is now fairly sure he will go bald based on genetic risk factors.  He's started using Minoxidil on a daily basis. 
- A couple of people are at increased risk for diabetes, and there was a long discussion of diabetes prevention.  Ditto on heart disease.

While some of these risks can be roughly assessed using family history, genetic testing tells you more precisely whether you have inherited the specific genes known to increase or decrease particular risks. 

When it comes down to it, people have a limited amount of attention to devote to potential health-related issues, so services like 23 and Me help people figure out what to focus on.  In addition to the risk assessments, they provide percentage chances of developing various ailments, which helps put increased/decreased risk in perspective.  For example, heart disease is a much more frequent occurrence than Crohn's disease, so even if you have a somewhat increased risk of Crohn's disease and a decreased risk for heart disease, it's still important to worry about heart disease. 

Given that medical costs for a single illness can easily top $400 in a single doctor's visit, the value of the data learned from 23 and Me makes it a bargain, even at full price. 


After the serious discussion, there was a more playful period where we started comparing sections of our genomes.  One fascinating section in particular was the immune system.  There's been a lot of research showing that people with very different immune systems are more strongly attracted to one another, presumably via pheromones.  While we don't know if the genes in the immune system that 23 and Me tests for are the same as the ones that control attraction, my informal experience of "scent" attraction levels for the women in the group lined up fairly well with the genetic dissimilarity of the immune system. 

I'm thinking there will be a dating site soon in which men and women are paired up using genetics as well as other characteristics.  It will lead to some interesting pairings, and hopefully not too many instances of couples who are terrible long-term matches but are completely filled with overwhelming attraction when they are near one another. 
mattbell: (Default)
I've been doing indoor rock-climbing as my primary form of exercise since mid-April, and it seems to have had a significant impact on my amount of muscle.  Since I started tracking my lean mass in mid-May, I've put on around 10 pounds, mostly muscle.  I've put on close to 20 pounds since I got back from my trip, (at which time people described me as rather emaciated).  Meanwhile, my girlfriend, who's been doing a fitness challenge, has dropped her body fat percentage by 6.5% while adding a few pounds of muscle. 

Rock-climbing builds muscle

I wish I had a good "before" photo...  This is the closest I could find.  I look kind of emaciated in this one, which was taken about three months after I got back from my trip:


mattbell: (Default)
The vast majority of my exercise now comes from indoor rock-climbing.  There's a gym about 5 minutes by car from my house.  In terms of atmosphere and focus, rock climbing is one of the geekiest sports out there.  It tends to be more collaborative than competitive and has a heavy intellectual emphasis.  Climbing routes are called "problems", which you must "beta", or solve from a technique perspective, to get to the top.  It's a giant 3D puzzle that you solve using your body.  In the process of solving the puzzle, you are strengthening a wide range of muscles.

I have an extremely hard time reliably integrating things like exercise into my life unless they're fun.  Weight rooms are never able to hold my attention for more than a few minutes.  Yoga is more useful than fun, so I tend to do it only occasionally, like when my body is aching.  However, rock climbing offers continual and varying challenges, and seems to keep my mind engaged.  In the past I used the videogame Dance Dance Revolution as exercise.  While it was fun, it was pure cardio and didn't do much muscle-building.  Rock climbing manages to hit balance, cardio, and strength at the same time.

Now I do about 1.5 hours of rock climbing three times a week, and I force myself to piggyback some time in the rock gym's weight room to work out muscles that aren't hit by rock climbing.  All in all it's been going well.  I've picked up a few pounds of muscle in the process, though that has plateaued in the last month.  I've paid a lot of attention to pre and post workout nutrition; since I'm an ectomorph I have to give myself a ridiculous amount of protein and carbs around workouts. 


Rock climbing geekery:
It took only a couple of months to reach the point where I was doing 5.10c and 5.10d routes, but progress has been very slow over the last three months.  I'm now doing some 5.11a routes, but not reliably.  Perhaps I should remember that skills often progress along a punctuated equilibrium model.  My bouldering has improved somewhat over the last month though.  I'm finally able to do some V3s, though I still can't do many V2s with steep overhangs. 
mattbell: (Default)
For years I've been convinced that sleeping pills that have Diphenhydramine HCl as the active ingredient (this includes most over the counter sleeping pills: Tylenol PM, Nytol, Sominex, Benadryl etc) make you dumber.

This study was only done on older African-Americans who were regular users of such pills, but it did establish just such a connection..

Apparently they're finding longer-lasting impairment, not just the next-day hangover effect I found. 

Take something else.  (eg Melatonin).  Or get some more exercise so you have less trouble falling and staying asleep.
mattbell: (Default)
There's now a substantial body of work on willpower that shows it is governed by a distinct biochemical pathway.

Some really interesting discoveries:
- Willpower is a limited resource.  If you expend it on one activity (eg putting up with a loud noise) it will be weaker when you need it for another activity (eg not getting mad when someone yells at you).  Thus it';s worth choosing what to focus your willpower on wisely.
- Willpower can be increased with strength training, just like a muscle.
- Low blood sugar decreases willpower.  (I used to tell high school teachers that eating in class helped me stay focused on the lecture.  Now I finally have evidence of this)
- Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is higher during high-willpower tasks.  This is REALLY interesting.  It's not mentioned in the article, but I know that high HRV can be induced by slow-breathing techniques used in meditation.  Biofeedback systems (eg the StressEraser and Journey To Wild Divine) train people to increase HRV.

(via Christine Peterson)


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