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Ask Slashdot: Do You Find Self Tracking Useful Like Stephen Wolfram Does? 139

Posted by timothy
from the impress-your-doctor-with-a-preemptive-stool-sample dept.
New submitter Manzanita writes "The domain of personal analytics, or 'Quantified Self,' is rich with interesting things to measure and many hackers have started projects. But they will only take off if it is sufficiently easy to gather and use the data. Stephen Wolfram has collected and analyzed a lot of his personal data over the last 20 years, but that is far beyond what most of us have the time for. What do you find worth tracking? What is ripe for developing into a business?"
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Ask Slashdot: Do You Find Self Tracking Useful Like Stephen Wolfram Does?

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  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:13PM (#39368647)

    Does that count?

    • Inflation is a bitch, ain't it? Tracking wages is like rubbing salt into an open wound.

      • Maybe for you. My real wages have definitely grown since becoming an adult, even considering inflation. But then, I started from pretty low down....

        • by timeOday (582209)
          Unless median real wages are going down VERY fast, each individual's real wages are still rising even as the population median falls; the point is they're not rising as fast or as high as your parents experienced - on average, of course.
          • A result of stagflation I presume?

            • by timeOday (582209)
              IMHO stagflation is a descriptive term rather than explanatory. Personally I think globalization is the main cause - it is winding down the relative advantage we enjoyed after the rest of the developed world destroyed itself last century. That created a labor shortage in the US that was wonderful for median incomes here.
  • by forkfail (228161) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:13PM (#39368659)

    ... I spend reading articles about tracking things that I track.

    2. ???

    3. Profit!

  • Traffic patterns (Score:4, Interesting)

    by uigrad_2000 (398500) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:14PM (#39368661) Homepage Journal

    There are lots of ways to go for my daily commute. Just because one is faster one day doesn't mean that it always will be.

    Yes, I have kept logs for my travel times. I figure that saving a minute a day definitely adds up over the course of a couple of years.

  • by Dinghy (2233934) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:16PM (#39368701)
    If the average person is sat down and told how much of their life is spent in front of the TV or playing video games, I would expect them to have a breakdown. It's one thing to know "I watch TV for 2 hours a day" but it's completely different when you're told "In the last year you spent 732 hours (yay leap year) watching TV." It's bad enough when MMO's and Steam made it possible to see your playtime. :)
    • If the average person is sat down and told how much of their life is spent in front of the TV or playing video games, I would expect them to have a breakdown. It's one thing to know "I watch TV for 2 hours a day" but it's completely different when you're told "In the last year you spent 732 hours (yay leap year) watching TV." It's bad enough when MMO's and Steam made it possible to see your playtime. :)

      Just throw it at them as a percentage.
      The average person spends between 25 and 40% of their life sleeping.

    • by Quiet_Desperation (858215) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:29PM (#39368959)

      But I enjoy my play time. A moment enjoyed is never a moment wasted.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:30PM (#39368973)

      I actually had one of these moments.

      I wrote a quick perl script that scanned through my IRC logs and graphed how much time I spent on there. I did it mainly as a joke (was also graphing some other channel regulars) but the numbers actually led me to do serious thinking about how I was spending my free time. I still spend a lot of time on IRC (I recognize it as something I enjoy and have little guilt about it) but I've also got into other hobbies as a result.

    • by Anrego (830717) *

      In the last year you spent 732 hours (yay leap year) watching TV.

      Minor nitpick/personal view .. but I have a very hard time absorbing stuff when dealing with large numbers (how man hours are in a year.. I really don't have a clue). Percentages are much more shocking. Percentage of free time would probably be much more scary.

      • by gstoddart (321705)

        Minor nitpick/personal view .. but I have a very hard time absorbing stuff when dealing with large numbers (how man hours are in a year.. I really don't have a clue).

        Well, 2000 hours gives you 40 hours/week for 50 weeks.

        So, 732 hours of TV is a part-time job. :-P

        • by tehcyder (746570)

          Minor nitpick/personal view .. but I have a very hard time absorbing stuff when dealing with large numbers (how man hours are in a year.. I really don't have a clue).

          Well, 2000 hours gives you 40 hours/week for 50 weeks.

          So, 732 hours of TV is a part-time job. :-P

          But how many "areas the size of Wales" is that?

    • by cpu6502 (1960974)

      I see no problem with watching TV. No different than reading a book (which for some reason is considered a higher form, but is still just entertainment).

      And I try to erase my tracks from being recorded. Fake handles for example. I don't need some employer or voter (if I ran for office), googling my name and uncovering everything I did. It's bad enough there's a track ranging from 1988 to 2002 (when I stopped using my real name). I prefer to be hard to find.

      • by Wraithlyn (133796)

        [Watching TV is] no different than reading a book

        A book requires you to engage your imagination to visualize what is happening.

        A good novel also contains far more depth than is possible to capture in a theatrical format.

    • It's bad enough when MMO's and Steam made it possible to see your playtime. :)

      It's worse when you treat it like a high score.

      "Ha, 5,000 hours in Diablo II! Suck on that, friends I no longer have!"

      -sobs quietly-

    • by traycerb (728174)

      daytum.com (acquired by facebook) is personal tracking gone mainstream. they have iphone/android apps so you can easily track things throughout the day, and then can generate pretty reports of your activity. one of the co-founders has been putting out his "annual reports" for a number of years, see http://feltron.com/ar11_02.html [feltron.com] for an example. his report includes things like number of days spent in NYC, servings of coffee during the year, etc...

    • by Manzanita (167643)

      People may find it uncomfortable to be reminded, but that is why simple feedback like looking in the mirror or weighing yourself can be so helpful in improving oneself. Ideally, with regular feedback, not just once a year learning that you have wasted a lot of time, you can keep on track without too much pain.

      Check out this company that has a product that gives continuous feedback about posture - http://www.lumoback.com./ [www.lumoback.com] I know I would do better with my back pain if I had their product. They will be demoin

  • No (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anrego (830717) * on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:18PM (#39368741)

    Not generally driven by efficiency, but happiness.

    I guess theoretically the data could be used to increase happiness, but I'd rather use my tried and true method of:
    - doing things that I know make me happy
    - investigating things I suspect will make me happy
    - avoiding things which will not make me happy
    - maintaining balance in the necessary evils and mitigating negative aspects (career properly balanced between enough money to be happy and job that while I don't dance out of bed in the morning, I generally enjoy).

    That said, different things make people happy. Some people are efficiency junkies. Some people are financial junkies (everyone knows at least one obsessive day trader who doesn't make much money, and knows it, but still spends every free moment playing in the stock market).

  • by quax (19371) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:23PM (#39368847)

    ... indicate at what point collecting and analyzing personal data becomes indicative of a narcissistic personality disorder?

    • by TWX (665546) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:34PM (#39369021)

      Generally at the beginning, when one starts voluntarily aggregating it.

      It's one thing to write a journal, it's another to maintain data when not required to. The stuff I keep organized are either all required (taxes and other mandated record keeping) or things that are part of collections that I don't want to buy in redundancy (movies, books, music), or things that need records to ensure reliability and functionality (auto and house maintenance).

      Pictures we take are usually sorted just by date, and we occasionally browse through them, like a normal photo album. The only major exception to that is when we were house-hunting, and those pictures were functional records. Most of those house photos have been archived or deleted, unless we saw something cool that we'd want to do to our house.

  • by sexconker (1179573) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:24PM (#39368859)

    A vast amount of data is useless unless you can filter it and analyze it to pick out the important information.
    Your brain already does this as you live your life.

    Tracking other mundane shit is a pointless exercise in nerdsturbation.

    • by Biff Stu (654099)

      We're talking about Stephen Wolfram here. His brain is capable of filtering and analyzing an infinite amount of information. For mere mortals, your mileage may vary.

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        We're talking about Stephen Wolfram here. His brain is capable of filtering and analyzing an infinite amount of information. For mere mortals, your mileage may vary.

        He actually IS the Singularity. It must be so frustrating for him that the rest of humanity has failed to acknowledge this self evident truth yet. He is probably minded to destroy all us puny human beings with a cleansing fire.

    • On the other hand, often you can only recognize the importance of some piece of information when you actually need it.

      • On the other hand, often you can only recognize the importance of some piece of information when you actually need it.

        Actually, "extremely rarely", not "often".
        Important stuff you tend to remember: Fire hot, food tasty, poop smelly, etc.

    • A vast amount of data is useless unless you can filter it and analyze it to pick out the important information.
      Your brain already does this as you live your life.

      And our brains are notoriously easy to fool and otherwise miss important information. As someone else pointed out, if you were to realize how much time you've wasted watching television, most people would be shocked. Maybe even shocked enough to change.

      2 hours a day, 5 days a week, is three weeks per year. That's more than most people get for vacation from their jobs!

      Tracking other mundane shit is a pointless exercise in nerdsturbation.

      Only if the optimizations it provides are trivial. Learning that eating that 1 free bagel on friday every week at the office equates to 5 lbs

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        Learning that eating that 1 free bagel on friday every week at the office equates to 5 lbs of body fat over the course of a year would be non-trivial.

        So the rest of the junk that you ear is irrelevant, you can pin down your slowly increasing weight purely to that specific Friday bagel?

  • Tracking how much gas you put into your tank, how many miles you drove on that gas, and when you put it in can be highly useful in a lot of ways: From a personal standpoint, this sort of historical data can reveal some interesting trends similar to what Wolfram saw in his data. For example, a large increase/decrease in mileage might indicate a move, marriage, or job change. From a financial standpoint, knowing exactly how much gas you are consuming can help you make a more intelligent decision when purch
    • You can get a rough estimate of this data by looking over past credit card statements and figuring in changes in the cost of gas over time, but it won't be nearly as accurate as manual tracking.

      True, but that level of precision isn't always needed. Do you need to know that you drove 12872 miles and use 92.8 gallons of fuel or will 15000 and 100 do when deciding whether or not to plunk down $30,000 on a new car? Some of the stuff he seems to be doing is like trying to get 5 digit precision on a Fermi Calculation [wikipedia.org].

    • by Anrego (830717) *

      Personally I just eat the cost.

      I pay the going rate when my tank runs out. I buy a car based largely on how it feels from the driver seat.

      Sure I'm missing out on some money savings, but I get to use that time/chunk of my brain for other things I enjoy

    • For example, a large increase/decrease in mileage might indicate a move, marriage, or job change.

      I would hope you'd remember your marriage, move or job change without having to infer it from changes in your gasoline usage....

    • by tehcyder (746570)

      From a financial standpoint, knowing exactly how much gas you are consuming can help you make a more intelligent decision when purchasing a car or considering other transportation alternatives.

      When you buy a modern car, you know what its fuel economy is going to be, the information is available and independently verified. If you buy a three ton monster truck instead of a Nissan Micra, you'd have to be unbelievably thick not to know in advance you're going to get a lot fewer miles per gallon.

  • Memory pruning (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DEFFENDER (469046) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:28PM (#39368929)

    Part of a healthy mind is the ability to forget unimportant or no longer relevant information in favor of more recent and accurate things. If i tracked myself I wouldn't be able to forget the unimportant or push aside the less desirable. I would be governed by old data and held to means and modes of things that may not reflect current realities.

    This seems more like punishment than an aid.

    • by dangets (1488755)
      what is the 42nd digit in pi? You don't maintain and memorize every thing that you write down. I would even see that writing things down may free your mind from having to remember them. We use Google to look up random trivia facts that we don't feel the need to store in our brain. The main benefit of this (IMHO) would be in being able to see trends and relationships between the data points that you log. You don't have to remember how many calories you eat everyday, but by logging them consistently you
  • by Anonymous Coward

    see Confirmation Bias [wikipedia.org]

  • The only thing I'd be interested in tracking (and I partly do) is exercise & health-related. These can help to show trends and improvement in fitness, and can help manage your life to live better/get stronger, etc.

    How many emails I sent 10 years ago: Who the fuck cares? The time's gone, it doesn't affect me today or in the future. I've got a different job and spend my time in a much different manner.

  • Dymaxion Chronofile (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Wolfram's self-tracking is nothing compared to this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dymaxion_Chronofile

  • Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rinoid (451982) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:34PM (#39369023)
    Here's the deal -- it's interesting as a sample. You might extrapolate a lot from his data. For a better sample tools just aren't there, except are they? A smartphone knows everything about your habits. I have been tracking any walk, jog, cycle, hike, or paddle I take with an app on my smartphone for about two years. Guess what I found out? I don't care enough to do anything with the data. I'm fit, I'm healthy and happy, I'm not an obsessed athlete. I get the idea and the nerdgasm of data, but I it doesn't help me enjoy life more.
    • by thoth (7907)

      Agreed... one of my hobbies is running, and as a gizmo geek I dutifully wear my GPS watch and heart rate strap. For most exercise (essentially always unless I forget my watch and/or strap a few times a year) I collect data: map, mile splits at whatever course I'm running, heart rate, and then after I'm finished I can see distance, moving time, various averages, etc.

      And after I upload the data into Garmin Connect and check it out for a few minutes, I almost never look at it again. The basic info I'm looking

  • by assertation (1255714) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:49PM (#39369219)

    "What do you find worth tracking? What is ripe for developing into a business?"

    Money and food. I use less of each when I track each and avoid excess.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I use less of [what I track] and avoid excess

      I think this illuminates a good rule for answering the "Should I track X about myself?" question. Tracking provides introspection and self-monitoring. It is a good thing when you feel that you're doing something inefficiently, or wasting a resource. However there are some parts of your life that you don't want to self-monitor: doing so can make those things less fun. For example tracking your video game playing might be a good idea if you feel like your gaming is getting in the way of your job or family...

      • "It is a good thing when you feel that you're doing something inefficiently, or wasting a resource."

        Agreed.

        Tracking for the sake of tracking saps a lot of joy out of life and is a waste of time unless there is a problem.

        Tracking helps bring things to your awareness in a way that adds momentum to reducing/increasing behaviors in a positive way........or giving you enough information to evaluate things fairly.

  • Self Tracking could, and thus will be influenced by the observer. With targeted ads I guess.
  • But I've used Google Latitude's history to look back when I did a bad job of tracking which clients I was at and for exactly how long.
  • General health (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mrjb (547783) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @03:54PM (#39369295)
    I find general health worth tracking. For a while, as part of my new year's resolution, I had a spreadsheet to track my body weight and blood pressure as well as to keep a log of everything I ate and drank and the amount I had exercised. I also had columns where I'd score my subjective well-being and stress levels, and one for general comments. Some interesting findings were that, unfortunately, exercise had a positive effect on my blood pressure. I also found that my stress levels strongly correlated with my alcohol intake the night before. Nothing like some first hand experience to learn something. Later on I found out that the hormone cortisol is responsible for those stress levels and yes, released when taking alcohol. I'd hardly call what I did solid science, but it is nice to find out when solid science confirms your own feeble efforts.
    • Have you tried the WiThings scale and blood pressure cuff? I believe the later requires an iOS device, but the scale just requires wifi.

      I have the scale and like it a lot. You just set up an account and weigh yourself, their website produces a graph for you automatically and can even export the data to other sites or your own spreadsheet. It takes a chunk of the work out of monitoring your health, which I appreciate.

  • by PPH (736903) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @04:07PM (#39369487)

    ... Slashdot does it for me.

    Modded

    1. Off Topic: 57 times this month
    2. Troll: 23 times this month
    3. Flamebait: 86 times this month
    4. Informative: 3 times this month

    Sorry about that last one, folks. I'll try to do better next time.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I use Runkeeper on my Android phone to track my runs and my commute by bike. I would also use it for tracking weightlifting, but I can't find a good app or shake the feeling of being a douche bag while I sit on the bench, swiping at my phone.

    What I really want is a way to more effectively integrate the phone's senses with the data collection apparatus , like if my phone knew I went on a run from data from the accelerometers and automatically used my gps data to send me an email with my average pace.

  • I wonder how hard it would be to train an AI to react like Stephen Wolfram based upon his emails.
  • San Francisco Bay Area Event (March 20 @ 6 PM, Stanford GSB Cemex Auditorium) — The Uploaded Life: Personal evolution through self tracking

    Description:

    What happens when we add the power of Social/Mobile and always-on personal devices to the evolving health markets? What are the successful Quantified Self business models that entrepreneurs are now exploring? Join the conversation at the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab (VLAB) event, The Uploaded Life: Personal evolution through self tracking, on Tuesday, March

  • by CosaNostra Pizza Inc (1299163) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @04:21PM (#39369665)
    How about the number of times I visit and minutes I spend reading/posting to slash.dot each day/week/ :P Fourteen years ago, I worked for a company (which was long since partitioned and spun-off) that tracked personal web usage to the extent that each employee and his/her manager was sent an email detailing weekly web usage: url of each site visited, amount of data downloaded from each site, and the employee's over-all bandwidth usage for the week compared to everyone else in the company. The manager of my department didn't care and my neighbor usually ranked in the top 50 out of 2000 and was proud of it XD
  • by SilverJets (131916) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @04:22PM (#39369681) Homepage

    It's an exercise in gathering completely useless data.

    How many people on Slashdot still have emails they sent in 1990? 1991? 1992? How many of those emails that you still have are actually relevant today? Worse still, how relevant to today is it to know how many emails you sent in 1990, 1991 or 1992?

    Even more useless....number of keystrokes per day for the last 10 years.

    This guy is going to die someday and his wife and kids are going to toss all this crap right into the dustbin.

    • by cffrost (885375)

      This guy is going to die someday and his wife and kids are going to toss all this crap right into the dustbin.

      It belongs in a museum!

      Seriously though, Wolfram seems like an intelligent guy; as such, I doubt he's expecting to care about his data after he's dead. Further, if he enjoys his (unusual) hobby at the detriment of no one, he should absolutely carry on. Finally, having some idea of his meticulousness, he's probably already got the meta-analytics he needs to make an objective determination of the psychological/physiological/monetary value(s) he derives from personal analytics. =)

  • by davevr (29843) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @04:24PM (#39369707) Homepage

    It is interesting and useful as a concept. You cannot really improve anything if you cannot measure it accurately, and so data gathering and analysis can certainly be extremely useful.

    However, I don't see much value in just collecting these digital signals like typing and email. Contrary to the title of the post, it is very impersonal. It is just email, really, and even for a serious tech head like Wolfram, that is surely a tiny part of his life.

    I also am one of those people with a huge email archive going back decades, and it is fun to play with. Certainly it is fun to find the first emails you sent to someone from ages ago. I also saved all of my old engineering notebooks, and it is great to go back and see things from the early days of QuickTime or notes from the very first time I saw a Mac Laptop - that sort of stuff.

    But I think it would be great if I could keep a detailed record of the things that I really care about. For example - I would like to know how much exercise I am actually doing, so I can see if I am really taking the stairs more. I would like to know how much time I spent in the car, so I could make more accurate decisions about the cost of living far from work. I would like to know how many new people I am meeting every week, so I can see if I am becoming more or less social. I would like to know when new topics are trending for me, so I can make sure I am continuing to expand my interests. I would like to monitor how much time I am spending with friends and family as opposed to just work and workmates. I would like to know how many times I gave a sarcastic answer to a question to make sure I am not becoming a dick. Now that I have a Kindle, I can't tell if I am reading more or fewer books than I used to. Am I really watching less TV because I play more video games, or am I keeping that constant and stealing video game time from other non-screen activities? These are just a few examples. No doubt you have your own list.

    The point is that if you care about acting a certain way, it is super useful to measure it. You can measure all of the things I mentioned right now, but many of them are a huge pain. If technology could somehow make this easier, I would be all for it.

    I just don't want FaceBook or Google to do it without asking me. :-)

    - davevr

  • by toddar (950823) on Thursday March 15, 2012 @04:26PM (#39369723)
    Personal analytics like anything else can become an obsession. I think tracking your caloric intake, weight, blood pressure, exercise and money spending are worthwhile for health and financial well being (I've lost 40 lbs this way). Writing down the names of people you meet (if you're bad at remembering names) is good for social happiness. Writing down yearly goals is probably good for achieving your definition of success. If you care about it, you should probably track it.
  • Something I wouldn't mind having a record of: Video footage around my home, video footage of the area around me, gps coordinates of my location, audio from all of the video, and index of faces and text against timecode for all of the video footage.

    Why? Lots of reasons. For one, I can submit video evidence regarding anything that happens that might concern a court (well, assuming you get rid of backwards laws, or maybe I wear a T-shirt and post signs informing all of what is going on). I also can spot an

  • I do self-track certain things that are very useful. I keep two logs: 1) concepts log 2) information flow log, and one moderate sized list.

    The concepts log records interesting or useful concepts as I encounter then, so I do not have the situation of sitting there wondering where was that discussion of how to do XYZ I'd read six months ago.

    The information flow log is a raw stream of ideas and information locations (sites, books, articles)

    As a side matter, I keep a list of things I do not know but need to le

  • I wouldn't find it useful; it would feel neurotic. So I don't self track. What gets me is other engineers who do self-track in some manner, and regard me as abnormal, insane, and/or less of a technical person because I don't.
  • I really wanted to get the word out about this event coming up at Stanford. I feel like a bit of a fool for not putting the link in the submission!

    There will be a panel discussing just this topic at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, put on by the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab (VLAB). VLAB puts on a great event. If you are in the area you should definitely join us!

    The Uploaded Life: Personal evolution through self tracking
    http://www.vlab.org/article.html?aid=438 [vlab.org]

    When:

    Tuesday, March 20, 2012
    6:00 - 7:00pm Ne

  • Many years ago when I gave up smoking, I asked for a receipt every time I bought a pack of cigarettes and did the math every week. It was a really good incentive.

  • I think the most important things I would want to learn are -- am I exercising well? Is it affecting my sleep? Am I getting enough sleep? Am I over-training?

    So I would love to track when I eat, maybe what I eat, when I exercise, when and how well I sleep (I have a Zeo which already does this), and resting heart rate.

    So exercising is really good for you... UNLESS you start over-training. If you over-train, your sleep quality goes down and your resting heart rate goes up.
    I think a LOT of people over-train

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