Five Things

Another week is about to begin and, as one would expect, this means the weather is about to become lovely. For some peculiar reason, the best weather always seems to happen between Monday and Friday. One might argue that this is the result of a very selective memory, but I’m inclined to think that the universe likes to tempt people into skipping work.

This is why we have “sick days”, right?

Sunglasses at Light

After going without for more than a decade, I finally have a pair of prescription sunglasses to use when out and about in the sun. One of the last big purchases I made before leaving Canada back in 2007 was a $890 pair of frameless glasses that could transition from completely transparent to decently grey with UV light. These broke a few years later and, being rather financially constrained at the time, I picked up a simple pair of regular glasses that would get the job done. This is the same pair I use today.

There are a couple of things I like about having a dedicated pair of prescription sunglasses. Not only is it easier to look at things outside during the daylight hours, but these can act as an auxiliary pair should anything happen to my indoor glasses. Until now, I’ve been extremely careful to ensure the boy doesn’t damage my eyewear. Now, while I plan on remaining vigilant, there is less at stake from little fingers creating big problems.

Unhelpful Rhetoric

This week I was chatting with a couple of neighbours when we heard a fire truck followed by an ambulance race down a nearby street, sirens and PA speakers blaring. One of the men stated that the fire and police have been a lot busier in the area lately, to which another said — and I am quoting in English despite the Japanese that was used — “The change happened about the same time the last group of foreigners moved into town.”

I couldn’t resist. I had to ask how often the cops or fire department had been to my house in the last 14 months.

“Oh, you’re fine,” the neighbour quickly said as though trying to backpedal. “The problem is all the Brazilians.”

To which I quickly rattled off a bunch of high profile crimes that have been in the news over the last two weeks, all of which have been conducted by Japanese people. Legal immigrants to Japan generally try to follow they rules because the consequences of causing trouble is too great a cost. I’ll admit that my attitude towards immigrants in Canada when I was young and stupid was unfair1, but I will do what I can to help people understand that people who willingly choose to live and work in Japan are generally hard-working, law-abiding residents.

10,000 a Day

In the month of May my average daily step count was 10,005. The last time I saw this sort of number was when I was still very much into the idea of Quantified Self, which I had to abandon after the boy was born due to the over-complexities of recording activities that are interrupted thrice at a minimum2. That said, both the boy and Nozomi have been insistent this month that they have more time outside, and I am quick to support any reason to get some fresh air and sunshine. It’s nice to see a 5-digit number again.

The Mazda is Back

Last week the Mazda was returned with a new transmission and two new associated computers. Before the car had problems, I thought the vehicle was smooth. After feeling how the car accelerated and maintains speed now, colour me surprised. I’ve not enjoyed a ride this smooth in years. The car feels brand new.

Quantifiable

As I eluded to earlier, I’ve recently started to track some of my numbers again. For the moment, tracking will be kept relatively simple with steps, heart rate at the time I wake up, sleep patterns, and body weight. A lot of this is quite automated, which makes it easier to get back into the swing. One thing I am looking forward to, though, is picking up an ᴡᴀᴛᴄʜ at some point to better track my pulse and other metrics. If I plan the budget just right, Santa might place one of these devices under the tree this year. Two would be better, but likely isn’t in the cards for this year.


  1. I didn’t mind that people came from other countries. What frustrates me was the communication barrier, as not everyone was fluent in English or Québécois. I used to ask “If you can’t speak either of the languages, why are you here?” It was an idiotic and unfair question. As a settled immigrant in a historically homogenous nation, I understand the challenges that come with moving across the planet.

  2. This is why I had to give up tracking my sleep. I would be woken up at least twice every night, and three times on average. Try recording that into a phone application that expects a person to go to bed just once per night.

Un-Quantifiable

A little over four years ago I started down the path of quantified self, measuring sleep patterns and caloric intake. A year later I was fortunate enough to upgrade to a phone that included the ability to track steps and, with the help of other applications, other measurements such as heart rate were tracked multiple times a day. This stats collection has been a regular component of each and every day up until last night when I decided to bring it all to a stop, delete the data from the phone, and walk away from the practice. This isn't out of laziness or the added complexity of collecting data when a newborn is screaming like a banshee at 3:30am, but a niggling question that has remained unsatisfactorily answered since 2014: What problem am I trying to solve?

I love numbers and charts and turning data into actionable information. There isn't much that I'm particularly good at in life, but data processing is where I excel. One would think that analysis from all this self-observation would be sufficient reward in and of itself. However, looking at the statistics, this is what a person can surmise about me:

  • I'm getting older
  • I sleep better on a clear day after a bit of alcohol and a shower
  • I don't get very good sleep during the workweek
  • I consume more "unhealthy" calories during the workweek
  • My body weight alternates between 78.2kg and 93.8kg every sixteen months
  • My heart rate is a steady 52bpm at rest
  • I generally walk 7,200 steps on a working day, and half as many on weekends
  • Anxiety keeps me up at night

Just over four years of data shows all of this to be true … but did I really need to make tens of thousands of personal measurements across 1500+ days for these insights? Aside from the heart rate data, everything else is pretty much observable without fancy hardware or data-collecting software. More than this, half of these numbers are outright inaccurate due to the problems with the very tools I use to collect this data. So, if the data is unreliable, is any of it actionable?

First there's the problem with measuring caloric intake. No two people are alike, and my body likely processes calories different from your body. You and I could eat the very same quantities of a food, but absorb a different amount of energy, too. The calorie count on packaged foods are inaccurate as well, being an average number for a product, rather than what's actually in the package. Then there's the problem of accurately measuring foods that you prepare at home. If I have a banana that was grown on a farm on the western coast of the Philippines, does it have the same caloric value as a "standard banana"? Many people I've spoken to about this generally say "who cares? It's just a tiny percentage different!", but those tiny percentages add up very quickly. Then there's the other argument that calories mean little, and it's nutrition that counts.

So … calories are a poor measure of one's intake. Time for me to ditch it and not feel guilty for the occasional unhealthy snack that I enjoy for reasons that have nothing to do with fuelling the body.

How about measuring my heart rate? Over the last few years I've seen it get slower by about one beat per year. From what a lot of health sites online say1, this is completely normal as we age. What's more concerning to me isn't the speed of the heart beat, but the rhythm during times of acute stress. It's been really weird for quite some time, and I occasionally need to lean against a wall or sit down for a few minutes until things return to the regular pattern. My cholesterol is very low. My blood pressure is very high. Maybe these are the numbers I should be paying attention to.

So heart rate makes no sense. Okay, let's ditch that. But how about the number of steps taken every day?

Yesterday I managed to power-walk an extra 45 minutes above my regular route every day, and I climbed an extra dozen flights of stairs because the elevator at the office was incredibly busy. What did my phone report? I'd walked 2,000 steps less than the day before and climbed zero flights of stairs despite doing an average of 45 every work day for the last year. When I pace at home with a baby in my arms, that counts as zero steps. When I'm cooking in the kitchen and going back and forth between the stove, counter, and fridge, that's zero steps. When I get up at the office for a cup of coffee, trek to my locker for a coffee pouch, walk to the shared kitchen for the hot water, then walk back to my desk, that's fewer than two dozen steps despite the 50 meters travelled. The numbers reported by the phone2 are wholly inaccurate and untrustworthy, therefore cannot be used in any decision-making process. If I wanted generalizations, I'd measure distances and calculate steps based on the length of my stride.

No point using the pedometer function on the phone, then.

And then there's sleep. This was the very first measurement I started keeping track of because I was sleeping so very poorly in 2013. The reason turned out to be work and home-related stress, yet I continued to measure my sleep because the application3 doubled as an alarm clock and would measure my heart rate first thing in the morning. Simplicity was key, and this was a very simple way to collect data while unconscious. Looking at the stats, though, there is nothing unexpected. I still struggle with stress and anxiety. I still lay awake in bed until 2:30am two weeks every month. Do I need a constant reminder that my dog is infinitely superior at sleeping than I?

Perhaps it's time to ditch measuring the sleep and focus on actually sleeping?

Looking at the Future

A lot of people have become quite enamoured with the idea of quantifying their daily activities in order to lead a more conscientious lifestyle. I wouldn't go so far as to say the concept of Quantified Self allows people to lead a healthier lifestyle, because I don't believe this is necessarily true. Health is deeply personal, and the cold algorithms we currently use to "gamify" and otherwise motivate ourselves fail to take a great number of important details into consideration. Our psychological well-being intrinsically tied to our physiological well-being, yet so many applications that try to tie these two disparate metrics together do so in an arbitrary and ultimately inconsistent manner, which leads one to ask whether the information collected can actually be used to make better decisions.

Validity of data aside, the other problem that people are bound to face going forward is the matter of privacy. So much of the data we collect about ourselves is stored on 3rd-party servers by organizations who are eager to pay the bills. While we can see visualizations of our data, not every application gives us the ability to export our data in a usable format for analysis somewhere else. To make matters worse, some services will not simply give people their data but instead charge them for the privilege of downloading their own data in an unwieldy CSV format. We are paying companies to get our own data back. Even if this is explained in 100pt font in the Terms of Service when signing up for the service, the practice strikes me as terribly wrong. Then comes the question of whether that company sells your data to other companies — and you know they do — and what measures are in place to protect your privacy. We cannot go a week without hearing of a high-profile hack or data leak. It only makes sense to never share data with a health and fitness company that we wouldn't also share with the CEO of our employer or the attendant at the gas station down the street. This isn't always realistic, though.

Looking just a few years into the future, the entire Quantified Self industry looks set to undergo a huge revolution. One with millions (or billions) of people taking part in an attempt to lead healthier, happier lives. While this is certainly a noble goal, there should be a few pre-requisites beforehand. Any serious Quantified Self project should:

  • operate in complete isolation, free of corporate interference or surveillance
  • make use of incredibly accurate, dependable measurement tools
  • be personalized to take into account our lifestyle, genetic makeup, and heredity
  • take into account that people are not machines, and that we all like to do "less ideal" things from time to time

So while the last four years of data collection has not been a waste of time or energy, it has revealed that there is still a long way to go in our understanding of what needs to be measured as well as the appreciation of what makes us all different. In time these problems will likely be overcome as very smart people make very smart systems but, until such a time, we are ultimately unquantifiable.


  1. Yes, we should never read health sites online for all the incorrect and inaccurate information, but it's hard to justify making a doctor's appointment just to ask asinine questions

  2. an iPhone 6S for those who are interested

  3. I used SleepCycle exclusively for the entire time I measured my sleep

Blessing or Curse?

This post discusses Alzheimer's Disease and, on re-reading, asking whether it's a blessing or a curse may come across as incredibly crass. Mental deterioration is a very serious matter and is incredibly difficult for families to deal with. I understand and respect this more than words can say, and the words below outline my fear of the condition and what it may do to a person's sense of self.

Depending on how we look at just about any part of the ageing process, people can perceive the changes our bodies undergo as either a blessing or a curse. One of the many wonderful changes I've noticed with my own body over time is that I have less and less of a sweet tooth while also finding locally-grown green vegetables incredibly flavourful without the slightest hint of dressing. I really enjoyed lettuce and broccoli as a teen, but absolutely devour these two foods when they're on the dinner plate. Unfortunately, ageing can be quite brutal when people who have been largely independent for the vast majority of their life start to lose privileges, such as the right to drive a car or live in their own house. Today I joined the family to visit — to my knowledge — the oldest member of my wife's family; her grandmother. In just a few weeks she'll be 98 years old, though I doubt she knows this. She has Alzheimer's, which is one of those conditions that I have difficultly deciding whether it's a blessing or a curse.

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's is in the top five of my List of Thing's I'd Rather Not Die From because it essentially zombifies us. Our bodies continue to function for a time, sure, but the person changes so drastically that there is very little of their past selves remaining. I've seen one person in my family go from being an incredibly intelligent, creative, and strong-willed person to a forgetful, frail shell of a man in the space of 5 years. By the end of his life, he could barely put a sentence together and he had trouble remembering whether he'd eaten food or not despite the empty plate in front of him. The person I grew up knowing was gone, though his body continued.

The same is seen in my wife's grandmother who, despite being almost a century in age, thinks she's still living in her childhood home which burned down in a tragic fire during the 1920s. She often asks if her father is asleep, despite the fact that he died just before the war. She shares fragments of memories from before anybody else in the room was born as though they happened just the other day, and then she'll repeat the story because she's forgotten that she's already shared the story. She does not remember her children very often. She doesn't remember her grandchildren at all, despite living in the same house as three of them for their entire lives. She doesn't remember attending my wedding, and asks if I am "a hired assistant". She lives in a different time.

This terrifies me. If Alzheimer's turns out to be a common occurrence in my family, will I contract the disease? Will my mind begin to deteriorate? Will I lose my entire self as a result? More importantly, will I be aware this is happening?

And this is where the question arises as to whether Alzheimer's is a blessing or a curse. The disease will be incredibly hard for the people around the individual who has the chronic neurodegenerative disease, there's no doubt about this. But is this a blessing in disguise to the person who is going through what is essentially the last stage of their lives? Rather than fight with their own failing body, they are slowly and quietly erased from their mind. The person who inhabits the body on the very last day is not at all the same person who existed five, ten, or twenty years prior. Or is this a curse, in that despite all our efforts in life, all the struggles and triumphs and experiences and friendships, we are not given the opportunity to face our last day with the full faculties of our mind?

I've been going back and forth on this for years … because I simply don't know enough about the disease, and I am terrified of losing my sense of self. Yes, this fear is very much fuelled by ego, but there's no denying that diseases of the mind are some of the most terrifying for introverted people who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about things.

The Terror of Becoming Charlie

Back in high school I read Flowers for Algernon, an incredibly well-told story of a man named Charlie with an IQ of 68 who becomes incredibly intelligent after an experimental procedure only to lose it all. What terrified me about this book was that he was cognizant of the decline. He wrote of his fears while desperately battling against time in order to find a solution to the problem. In the end, he regressed to his former self but with a slight surface knowledge of the things going on around him.

Is this what Alzheimer's is like? Are people consciously aware that they are losing their mental abilities? One common symptom of the disease is that people become frustrated and angry as they try to do things they once did with ease, only to fail time and again. Is this the anguish of losing one's self? Is Alzheimer's similar to Locked-In Syndrome, where people are fully conscious of what's going on around them, but completely unable to participate in the world themselves? Will I watch my final days and see the sadness family members feel for my fate through the eyes of a mild-mannered, forgetful shell? Or will I simply cease to exist?

Reincarnation is something that I strongly hope is real, as there is just so much in this universe to see and learn that a billion lifetimes is not enough. If this is the way the universe works, then it means that we have an eternal soul and — most likely — a mostly consistent personality. If this is the case, how does our non-corporeal self deal with such a drastic change in cognition?