Welcome to the IdeaMatt blog!

My rebooted blog on tech, creative ideas, digital citizenship, and life as an experiment.


Are you a worrywort? Make some experiments and get a free book!

I'm playing with different ways to get people excited about personal experimenting, and I found this book on my shelf: The Worrywart's Companion: Twenty-One Ways to Soothe Yourself and Worry Smart. I talked about it in my post Handling worries: keep a list, schedule them, and have a worry place, and I'm asking for a volunteer to help others by creating some group experiments for the ideas in the book. Experiments are pretty easy to create, and I want to have a batch of onging ones for people to get started in Edison with. For example, people might try this for two weeks:

  • keep a worry list,
  • schedule worry time, and
  • have a worry place

We can get creative on what to measure (what would you suggest?) Anyone up for it?


A big congratulations to Chris Crouch on his new book, Getting More Done

Old printing press

I am pleased to give a shout-out to Chris Crouch and his new book, Getting More Done: 10 Steps for Outperforming Busy People. As someone writing his first book, Chris's steady stream of titles is surely impressive. Talking with him always makes me think, and when I was diving into the productivity realm, his book "Getting Organized" was influential. (More at Some thoughts from the book "Getting Organized" by Chris Crouch and An interview with Chris Crouch, creator of the GO System.) Congratulations, Chris!


Quantified Self Boston Meetup #5, The Science of Sleep: Recap

[Cross posted to Quantified Self]

QS Boston Meetup #5 was held on Wednesday on the topic "The Science of Sleep," a subject that comes up here regularly. The event was major success and, to my mind, demonstrated powerfully the potential of the self-experimentation movement and the exceptional people making it happen. Here is a brief recap of the evening, with my comments on what was discussed. A big thanks to Zeo for their generous support of the meeting, QS Boston leader Michael Nagle, and sprout for hosting the event.

Experiment-in-action: A participatory Zeo sleep trial

Michael put the theme into action uniquely by arranging for a free 30-day trial of Zeo sleep sensors to any members who were interested in experimenting with it and willing to give a short presentation about their results. Over a dozen people participated, and the talks were a treat that stimulated lots of discussion. I thought this was an excellent use of the impressive members of this community, as the talks demonstrated.

Steve Fabregas

Zeo research scientist Steve Fabregas kicked off the meetup by explaining the complex mechanisms of sleep, and the challenges of creating a consumer tool that balances invasiveness, fidelity, and ease of use. He talked about Zeo's initial focus (managing Sleep inertia by waking you up strategically), which - in prime startup fashion - developed into the final product. Steve also gave a rundown of the device's performance, including the neural network-based algorithm that infers sleep states from the noisy raw data, something he said that even humans have trouble with. There were lots of questions afterward, including about their API and variations in data based on age and gender. All in all, a great talk.

Sanjiv Shah

Sanjiv started out the sleep trial presentations with a lively talk about the many experiments he's done to improve his sleep, including a pitch-black room, ear plugs, and no alcohol or caffeine. But the biggest surprise (to him and us) was his discovery of how a particular color of yellow glasses, worn three hours before bed, helped his sleep dramatically. This is apparently based on research into the sleep-disturbing frequencies of artificial light. He shared how wearing these also helped reduce jet lag. The talk was a hit, with folks clamoring to know where to get the glasses. I found this page helpful in understanding the science. (An aside: If you're interested in trying these out in a group experiment, please let me know. I am definitely going to test them.)

Adriel Irons

Adriel studied the impact on weather and his sleep (via the Zeo's calculated ZQ) by recording things like temperature, dew point, and air pressure. He concluded that there's a possible connection between sleep and changes in those measures, but he said he needs more time and data. Audience questions were about measuring inside vs. outside conditions, sunrise and sunset times, and cloudiness.

Susan Putnins

Susan tested the effect of colored lights (green and purple) on sleep. Her conclusion was that there was no impact. As a surprise, though, she made a discovery about a the side-effects of a particular medication: none! This is a fine example of what I call the serendipity of experimentation.

Eric Smith

Eric tried a novel application of the Zeo: Testing it during the day. His surprise: The device mistakenly thought he was asleep a good portion of his day. He got chuckles reflecting on Matrix-like metaphysical implications, such as "Am I really awake?" and "Am I a bizarre case?" His results kicked off a useful discussion about the Zeo's algorithms and the difficulty of inferring state. Essentially, the device's programming is trained on a particular set of individuals' data, and is designed to be used at night. Fortunately, the consensus was that Eric is not abnormal.

Jacqueline Thong

Jacqueline finished up the participatory talks with her experiment to test whether she can sleep anywhere. Her baseline was two weeks sleeping in her bed, followed by couch then floor sleep. Her conclusion was that her sleep venue didn't seem to matter. One reason I liked Jacqueline's experiment is that, like many experiments, surprises are so rich and satisfying. Think bread mould. She said more data was needed, along with more controls. Sadly, she wondered whether her expensive mattress was worth it. Look for it on eBay.

Matt Bianchi

Matt Bianchi, a sleep doctor at Mass General, finished out the meetup with a discussion of the science and practice of researching sleep. Pictures and a description of what what a sleep lab is like brought home the point that what is measured there is not "normal" sleep: 40 minutes of setup and attaching electrodes, 200' of wires, and constant video and audio monitoring make for a novel $2,000 night. He said these labs give valuable information about disorders like sleep apnea, and at the same time, what matters at the end of the day is finding something that works for individuals. Given the multitude of contributing factors (he listed over a dozen, like medications, health, stress, anxiety, caffeine, exercise, sex, and light), trying things out for yourself is crucial. He also talked about the difficulties of measuring sleep, for example the unreliability of self-reported information. This made me wonder about the limitations of what we can realistically monitor about ourselves. Clearly tools like Zeo can play an important role. Questions to him included how to be a wake more (a member said "I'm willing to be tired, but not to die sooner,") to which he replied that the number of hours of sleep each of us needs varies widely. (The eight hour guideline is apparently "junk.")

Matt's talk brought up a discussion around the relative value of exploring small effects. The thought is that we should look for simple changes that have big results, i.e., the low hanging fruit. A heuristic suggested was if, after 5-10 days, you're not seeing a result, then move on to something else. A related rule might be that the more subtle the data, the more data points you need. I'd love to have a discussion about that idea, because some things require more time to manifest. (I explored some of this in my post Designing good experiments: Some mistakes and lessons.)

Finally, Matt highlighted the importance of self-experimentation. The point was that large trials result in learning what works for groups of people, but the ultimate test is what works for us individually. (He called this "individualizing medicine.") This struck a chord in me, because the enormous potential of personal experimenting is exactly what's so exciting about the work we're all doing here. All in all, a great meetup.

[Image courtesy of Keith Simmons]


(Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter's journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at matt@matthewcornell.org)


"One of my goals is to catalyze an army of good self-experimenters"

One of my goals is to catalyze an army of good self-experimenters; part of my job is therefore to train readers to do their own homework. Richard Feynman famously remarked, "It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong."

Tim Ferriss in his Wired interview Tim Ferriss Wants to Hack Your Body.

Of course I love this quote, which expresses something Ferriss and I have this in common. His approach is through doing extreme experiments on himself, then sharing them compellingly and controversially with an large, receptive audience that's he's fostered. He's done a ton of good in promiting an experiment-driven life.

My approach is through developing and sharing the wider philosophy (I call it Think, Try, Learn) and creating tools that make it easy for anyone to create, track, and learn from their experiments, and help others with theirs. With the recent Edison features of quantified data and group experiments, the tool now has enough in place for me to figure out how well it does this.


Is The Great American Experiment really one, and how do we measure it?

Our National Debt

In Radical Optimism, Kevin Kelly asks the question,

What set of 10 measurements taken over 10 years would convince you that there was progress, for the average human, either in one location or globally? Let's pick a 10/10 metric and measure it.

The timing of my coming across this article is perfect. In my They did WHAT? series I learn about how the word "experiment" is being used in the news, and I've found that the phrase "The Great American Experiment" comes up a lot (about 5 million hits on Google).

This made me curious, because if it is an experiment, what exactly are we trying, what measurements should we be making, what are the current results, and what does this tell us about our national priorities? I wonder if what impact, if any, would creating a national "American Experiment" scoreboard have on our thinking?

With our current polarization and political impotence I can't imagine even coming up with "a modest base of shared values" that people agree on (see below), but wouldn't an honest and frank national discussion that frames it as an experiment be exciting?

I'd like to get a conversation going around this. I was going to list my own childish ones, but the post morphed into references and starting points. I'd love to read your thoughts on the topic. Sections:

How "Great American Experiment" is used

Here are some posts to stir the pot.

  • Empire at the End of Decadence by Charles Blow ("Financing for education and social services isn't simply about handouts to the hardscrabble, it is about building an infrastructure that can produce healthy, engaged and well-educated citizens who can compete in an increasingly cutthroat global economy.") His graphic, American Shame, is sobering. It shows us in comparison to many other countries with respect to:
    • Income Inequality
    • Most recent unemployment rate
    • Level of democracy
    • Gallup Poll "Level of Well-Being Index"
    • Life Expectancy at Birth
    • Prison Population
    • Student Performance: Math
    • Student Performance: Science
  • Can data predict the next revolution?, in response to The Kindling of Change, also by Charles Blow ("data won't provide the complete answer ... What demographic, political, and economic data is really, truly most indicative of the potential for revolution?")
  • Renewing the American Experiment | Living Economies Forum ("many of the things that economists count as contributions to economic growth actually devalue the quality of our lives and ultimately result in high hidden costs, which ironically are then counted as though they were positive contributions")
  • PBS - John Gardner - Education and Excellence ("The long-term task is to move toward some modest base of shared values.")
  • The Great American Experiment ("What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible.") He provides clues to metrics:
    • Could we create a strong and stable centralized government?
    • Could we grow without destabilizing?
    • Could we solve the problem of slavery?
    • Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations?
    • Could we give women the vote?
    • Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans?
    • Could we desegregate?
    • Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?
  • Who coined the term "The Great American Experiment"? ("The term derives from Alexis de Tocqueville's book Democracy in America, written in the 1830s.")
  • Up With America - Saving Our Union ("A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.") His progression is fascinating:
    1. Bondage
    2. Bondage to Spiritual Faith
    3. Spiritual Faith to Great Courage
    4. Great Courage to Liberty
    5. Liberty to Abundance
    6. Abundance to Complacency
    7. Apathy to Dependence
    8. Dependence Back to Bondage

Existing measures

I often wonder, "How much is enough?" We seem founded on consumption and change, but I think our rich lifestyle has moved our thinking away from the essentials. The NYTimes.com post Alternatives to the G.D.P. lists some arguments against using GDP, and alternatives (listed next). Related is debatewise's question, Could a range of statistics be used to measure a country's wellbeing rather than GDP?, Helium's Debate: Should society measure progress not just by increases in GDP, but rather through a set of more precise quality of life indicators?, and the Quality of life Wikipedia entry. Finally, I like that someone thought to encourage our being proactive (the purpose of the Experiment-Driven Life): How to Measure the Quality of Life.

  • Toward National Well-Being Accounts, By Daniel Kahneman, et. al. ("Here we propose measuring national well-being by weighting the time allocated to various activities by the subjective experiences associated with those activities.")
  • The Happy Planet Index ("The Index doesn't reveal the "happiest" country in the world. It shows the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet's natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens.") You can calculate your score here. The US scores "Poor" on their map.
  • Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare ("Rather than simply adding together all expenditures like the gross domestic product, consumer expenditure is balanced by such factors as income distribution and cost associated with pollution and other unsustainable costs.")

    ISEW = personal consumption
    + public non-defensive expenditures
    - private defensive expenditures
    + capital formation
    + services from domestic labour
    - costs of environmental degradation
    - depreciation of natural capital

  • Genuine progress indicator ("GPI is an attempt to measure whether a country's growth, increased production of goods, and expanding services have actually resulted in the improvement of the welfare (or well-being) of the people in the country.")
  • Gross national happiness, detailed in Time's What About Gross National Happiness? ("Wangchuck still maintains that economic growth does not necessarily lead to contentment, and instead focuses on the four pillars of GNH: economic self-reliance, a pristine environment, the preservation and promotion of Bhutan's culture, and good governance in the form of a democracy.")
  • Human Development Index ("composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita GNI (as an indicator of standard of living or income) collected at the national level"). From What does the Human Development Index measure?: "The new Report surprisingly shows that there is just little correlation between income growth and changes in health and education over time."
  • The 2010 Legatum Prosperity Index("Rather than replicating other measurements that rank countries by their actual levels of wealth, life satisfaction, or development, the Prosperity Index produces rankings based on the foundations of prosperity.") Their findings fell into three categories:
    • i. Prosperity is found in entrepreneurial democracies that have strong social fabrics.
    • ii. Prosperity is a blend of wealth and happiness, but not as one might think.
    • iii. Global prosperity is changing in unexpected ways.

Responses to Kelly's post

Here are the two list-of-10 answers to Kelly's post:


  1. Connectivity (ease of finding opportunity, community, information - may even encompass mobility - ease of travel)
  2. Critical Thinking (not just 'education' but education that actually results in the ability to innovate, solve problems, and think critically.)
  3. Access to clean drinking water (you might also measure this in other ways, like prevalence of water-born illnesses)
  4. Self-reliance (as opposed to increased reliance on the government and social programs, entitlement, victim mentality, and the expectation that everything should be fair or equal because that doesn't seem like an economically sustainable philosophy)
  5. Decrease in chronic and non-age related disease (arthritis, asthma, colitis, eczema, etc. I realize this trend is impacted by the broadening definition of these conditions and increased diagnosis, but I'd argue that it isn't progress if we are not solving them faster than they are growing)
  6. Freedom (freedom from oppression, tyranny, dictatorship - honoring basic human rights)
  7. Violent Crimes/Killing of any kind (including warfare)
  8. Economic growth and stability (not that everyone is getting rich, per se, but that the world economy becomes more stable)
  9. Reduced debt (both personally and in governments)
  10. Cost of living (heat, shelter, food)


  1. Happiness Index (the British government's new measurement system version is fine).
  2. Hours involuntarily spent away from loved ones versus hours voluntarily spent with loved ones (relative hours per week per person).
  3. Longevity (average life span of world population).
  4. Number of disaster events (number per year of events above the mean of normalised killed distribution and/or damage cost (eg Ilan Noy))
  5. Atmospheric CO2-e (ppm). It should go without saying that "progress" = "decrease in ppm". Let's respect science.
  6. Ocean stocking rate of principle fish species (first preference would be species extinction rate generally - but these stats are too easily manipulated - also fish stock rate is *the* classic TOC governance problem that is yet to resolve adequately - so is fine)
  7. Either; transport fuel production (mbd), or, travel miles (miles per person per year)
  8. Asset equality per person (USD is fine).
  9. Average level of "body burden" compounds in the global population.
  10. Solution found to the fermi paradox.

Ideas from the Constitution

Finally, going back to the basics I can imagine lots of simple measures based on the constitution, though there's plenty of gray areas open to interpretation. I know nothing about it (constitutional law is not my specialty), but what the hell, I'll make a childish stab at it.

It starts,

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

So we'd need to measure:

  • justice
  • domestic tranquility
  • defense
  • general welfare
  • liberty for ourselves
  • liberty for future generations

But these are too vague. For example, "establish justice" is implemented by the court system, but the measure "Has court system" (yes/no) isn't useful enough.

Similarly, we could analyze the Bill of Rights and ask what measurements can we infer from the Amendments. For example, Amendment I says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

There's a summary here. Again, lots of interpretation, such as how many guns, and of which types, are legal, and if that's even appropriate today.