My Quantified Self

As part of a concerted effort to get back into some semblance of shape, I recently purchased a Withings Pulse. For those of you unfamiliar with Withings, they create wirelessly connected sensors for health monitoring. A couple of years ago I bought their WiFi-enabled scale and love it. When I weigh myself in the morning, the measurement is sent to their servers and I can analyze the data through a web app or a dedicated iPad app.

The Pulse is a bit different, though. Basically, the Pulse is a pedometer that wirelessly syncs with a companion app on your iPhone (and through that, back to the Withings servers). However, the Pulse can also measure your heart rate and can be put in a nifty wrist band to track your sleep habits. All of this data, plus my weigh-in data, feed into the iPhone app for analysis (they also have a blood pressure cuff, but I don’t have that). Further, the Withings app can take in data from other health services like Runkeeper. I use that for tracking the exercise that I am doing.

While all of this is great, the real power stems from the integrated app and the motivation it is giving me. If I am tired at night and don’t really want to walk, I usually still will because it will increase my step count for the day (plus, Runkeeper complains at me if I go too many days without exercising). Seeing the weight graph moving downwards keeps me motivated to eat right and keep exercising as well. If I weren’t traveling so much, I would do better updating MyFitnessPal, a calorie tracker that integrates with Withings as well. When I keep it updated, I can fairly well determine whether the scale will move up or down the following day.

Now, I could do all of this without the fancy equipment and integration. I would use a traditional scale and keep up with it in a spreadsheet (I did several years ago). I could keep track of exercise, steps, and calories the same way (although calorie tracking would be much more difficult without the database backing this app). But, the ease of use I have with this method is keeping me going for the moment.

September Challenge

I read a lot about personal finance. I read several books a year on it — most recently I finished the 2005 edition of The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need and I am currently working my way through The Millionaire Mind. In addition, I follow numerous personal finance blogs. All of this recent reading has started me thinking about what I really need and whether there is a way to cut back on spending. So, to that end, I have two cuts that I am implementing for the month of September and, at least one of them, for beyond.

Since before Emily was born, Ashley and I have paid the extra money every month for digital cable because we wanted to get high-definition channels. However, the past few months, I have realized at we, as a family, really watch very little TV. Further, the TV that we do watch is mainly found either on the local channels or on Netflix Instant. So, after talking it over with Ashley, we are going to drop cable entirely in favor of receiving our local HD channels over e air. The one show that we really enjoy and are current on that is not on local networks can easily be downloaded to the Apple TV for a small charge per episode. All in all, I expect this to be a fairly easy transition that should save us somewhere around $70-80 every month.

The second challenge for September is more of a personal challenge for me. Since I do most of the cooking around here, when I get home and don’t feel like making anything, it has become entirely to easy for me to declare that we are going out to eat. Lately, we have been eating out at least one weeknight and just about every meal except for breakfast on the weekends. Also, this does not count the 3–4 days a week that I have been eating lunch out instead of taking a lunch or coming home to eat. Now, that is really ridiculous since I work five minutes from home and it almost certainly takes me longer to grab something for lunch that to come home and heat up leftovers or make a sandwich. So, for the month of September, I am challenging myself to not eat out unless it is meaningful to me. I am making an exception for Ashley and my date night this Saturday and I am debating whether or not I will make an exception for the weekly lunch group I meet with. Hopefully, by the end of this month, I will have broken the eating out habit. It is a bit on the embarrassing side, but we spent almost $500 on eating out this last month so by breaking this habit for me, we will probably save at least 80% of that for September.

These personal spending cuts are inspired by financial reading, but the reason is not really austerity related. While the amounts that we spend, both of cable and dining out, are high, neither one is really breaking the bank for us. Granted, I can find better things to do with the money, but this challenge is more about just making myself do it.

Holism vs. Reductionism in Research

Lately, I have given a good bit of thought as to how I research new topics. There are two related concepts in philosophy, Holism and Reductionism, that play together in how I approach research. Holism was put forth by Aristotle as “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” The concept of reductionism is defined as the opposite: “The whole is nothing more than the sum of its parts.” Which is the natural way for me to approach researching new topics?

When learning something new, I have a tendency to split my efforts into multiple strata. First, I get a broad overview of the topic and try to just get a feel for the basics. At this point, I am not concerned with doing calculations or working any types of problems. I just was to get a rough feel for the topic. As I study, I make a note of topics that interest me further. Once I feel like I have a good overview, I pick the most interesting topic and dig a deeper into it. This is the point where I start to try to apply what I am learning, either by working problems or writing programs. However, I never really go too deep on any one topic—I tend to bounce around all of the topics that interest me, chipping away at the terminology bit by bit, working a little more, until I feel like I have a good enough understanding of the topic to satisfy my interest.

So, where do I fall along the holism—reductionism line? Well, I would say that, in general, I take a more holistic view of research. To me, the whole is more important than the individual parts. I only want to know enough of the parts so that I feel like I have a good enough understanding of the whole. I think that plays into my Jack of All Trades syndrome. If I can grasp the Big Picture of a topic, it is infinitely more valuable to me than if I become an expert in all of the little pieces.

A Mathematician’s Apology (Addendum): Importance

On Monday, I explored two questions of Hardy’s:

  1. Is what you are doing important?
  2. Why do you do it?

I came to the conclusion that my endless pursuit of knowledge was not very important in the grand scheme of things, since I was not sharing it with other people. Afterwards, Ashley and I were talking about the different levels of importance. She made the point that, although I did not feel like what I was doing was important, my pursuit of learning set a very good example for Emily and, on that level, it was important.

There is no absolute scale in importance. How important an activity is lies in the context in which it is viewed. If you feel that your job is not very important, maybe you are demonstrating a good work ethic to your coworkers or your children. Each activity must be viewed through the prism of your life to find its significance. If you find an activity important enough to spend your time on it, do the be you can. If it is important to you, there is a good chance it is important to someone else as well.

A Mathematician’s Apology: Motives

I am still reading through G. H. Hardy’sA Mathematician’s Apology”; it is a very interesting essay, but it is fairly long after riding seven miles a night on the bike, I have not felt much like reading. However, Hardy has some ideas about the motives behind research that I found interesting:

There are many highly respected motives which may lead men to prosecute research, but three which are much more important than the rest. The first (without which the rest must come to nothing) is intellectual curiosity, desire to know the truth. Then, professional pride, anxiety to be satisfied with one’s performance, the shame that overcomes any self-respecting craftsman when his work is unworthy of his talent. Finally, ambition, desire for reputation, and the position, even the power or the money, which it brings. It may be fine to feel, when you have done your work, that you have added to the happiness or alleviated the sufferings of others, but that will not be why you did it. So if a mathematician, or a chemist, or even a physiologist, were to tell me that the driving force in his work had been the desired to benefit humanity, then I should not believe him (nor should I think the better of him if I did). His dominant motives have been those which I have stated, and in which, surely, there is nothing of which any decent man need be ashamed.

It is important to note that Hardy attributes these motives to be the driving reasons why people perform research; obviously, there are other professions, such as teaching or social work as a few examples, that may have alternate, altruistic motives.

Reflecting these motives back on myself, I find that they fit fairly well in that order. First and foremost, I want to know the answer to the question that I am pursuing. As an aside, I find myself asking questions during the most random times and wanting to know the answer. The other night while giving Em a bath, I couldn’t remember what eigenvalues and eigenvectors were, so I had to fetch my Linear Algebra text and look it up while Em was entertained with bath crayons. There was no particular reason why this flitted through my head, but it did and I had to know the answer. What can I say, I am a little weird. Secondly, when I am writing software, I want my programs to work correctly when other people get their hands on them. Finally, I want to be thought of well in whatever I am doing. Luckily, the first two motives usually help to drive this third one along.

I especially like Hardy’s statement that “there is nothing of which any decent man need be ashamed”. Yes, doing things for the greater good is noble, but if you do not get joy and satisfaction from what you do, you will become burned out and no longer want to do it. Maybe you get joy and satisfaction merely knowing that you are helping others; for me, there also has to be the hint that I am going to learn something new.