Welcome to the IdeaMatt blog!

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


Still alive :-)

Day of the Dead #3 / Día de los Muertos #3

Just a quick note to say yes, I'm still kicking. Going through a bit of a reality-check re: where I am with Think, Try, Learn and Edison, and I'm brainstorming some options for funding them. Now that I've had an anti-burnout reset, I'd welcome a situation in programming, especially if something exciting comes up. I'm also open to other work that involves research, thinking, and writing, say in technology, engineering, or the QS tool realm. I'd welcome your suggestions and pointers to possible opportunities.

Let me leave you with a few quotes.

You could never be bored when you confronted mystery.

From The Burning Wire: A Lincoln Rhyme Novel (I'm a sucker for Jeffery Deaver's work). Everything seems stupid when it fails. -- Fydor Dostoevsky, from Crime and Punishment (free download here).

Everything seems stupid when it fails.

From Fydor Dostoevsky's from Crime and Punishment (free download here).


2011-04-20: They did WHAT?

Test Tube Terrarium

Quick links from the past week of experiments in the World Wide Lab

The best way to learn is to experiment and fail, says Michael Dell. The idea that failure is a necessary part of success is a common idea, but that doesn't mean it's easy or accepted. I like his thought, though:

I think the best learning comes from actually doing things and experimenting, and failing quickly, and small experiments. It's certainly how our company got started. ... It's not always easy and doesn't always work, but that's how the system works.

Two other useful posts on the topic are from HBR: Failure Isn't Enough and Failing Toward Success at Google.

In Food experiments: Sharing recipes online brings new flavors, the author shares one person's journey into vegetarian cooking. Trying new recipes, and variations within them, is a tried-and-true platform for experimenting. Two cases I've come across are not having the right ingredients, and accidents, such as adding the wrong thing or cooking too long.

Experiment: Turning Blogs Into A Kindle Book covers a very clever experiment where the author "took about 100 of my blog posts, bundled them as a PDF, and submitted them to the Kindle Store." He charged $2.99 (a price break point where Amazon's take drops from 70% to 30%). I very much like the idea of using platforms like the Kindle store to do quick experiments like this. The pattern is come up with something relatively easy to test, decide what you'll test, put it up, and learn from the results. It's too early for results, but what do you think about it? Have you tried anything similar?

Cube Project Is A 97 Square Foot Psychology Experiment describes the idea behind Mike Page's Cube Project at the University of Hertfordshire. The gist:

build a compact home, no bigger than 3x3x3 metres on the inside, in which one person could live a comfortable, modern existence with a minimum impact on the environment

I like that he's studying possible behavioral changes that result. Anyone want to give it a go?

The brief story Demand-based parking fees to start in San Francisco made me wonder about the value of such experiments, when reducing the use of cars in general seems more the point. Small steps, I suppose. What would you experiment with to get people to drive less?

The author of Nuclear experiment is a failure says "The biggest and main problem is that nuclear power is still in the experimental stage." Is nuclear power an experiment? If so, what are we measuring?

In the article Study Looks at 'Forbidden Fruit' Hypothesis we learn about a University of Kentucky study that tested the "forbidden fruit hypothesis:"

"If the circumstances or situation implicitly limit a person's attention to an attractive alternative, that alternative suddenly becomes 'forbidden fruit.'"

The answers supported the forbidden fruit theory: "Those whose attention to look at the attractive picture was controlled answered that they were less satisfied in their relationships and had a more positive outlook on infidelity." How could we use this to structure our environments to dissuade (or support) this behavior?

The author of Social experiment: Know thy neighbor shares the results of his reaching out to get to know people around him. I love personal social experiments like this, and I work to try them regularly. What strikes me is that doing this could be considered a kind of experiment in the first place (I think it is). It speaks to our long-distance and thin social connections, I think. I'm curious: How well do you know your neighbors?

Finally, in the category of "Try something extreme for a year and then write a book about it," Comedy and caveats in new book 'The Great Fitness Experiment' talks about Charlotte Andersen's book, The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything. Other examples include Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. What I appreciate about these books is, beyond the fun stories, of course, is the inspiration to try something new, along with experiment ideas. Have you read the book? Any others in this category that you like?


"This isn't working"

DSCN1866An integral part of treating life as an experiment is being willing to face the facts, especially when something you're trying isn't working. This is hard for me because I'm often attached emotionally to the experiment, and want it to work out as-is. However, reality doesn't always (often?) match our expecatations, so we have to be flexible.

For example, right now I'm taking a close look at Edison to see what people need from it, and what it takes to get it to stick. If I'm attached to it as it stands, then I suffer because I don't want to change. However, if I remind myself that it's a work in progress, then I can more easily ask how it's going (based on data) and what needs to change. Ideally I'll find a small thing that would yield a big improvement, or at least yield more targeted information.

How about you? Anything you're trying that you need to ask, "Is this working?"


Micro Experiments

getting a measure

[Cross-posted to Quantified Self]

What's the smallest thing you've tracked that had a short turnaround time but generated useful results? I've noticed that the kinds things we try in the Quantified Self community are often longer-term experiments that seem to be a week or two long at a minimum. I think this is primarily due to the effects of what we try need time to emerge. (This brings up the issue of how much value there is in investigating subtle results, which came up at our recent Boston QS Meetup - recap here.)

However, as I work to adopt an experimental mindset about life, I've noticed these efforts can vary in scope, duration, and complexity. Because interesting things happen at extremes, I've been exploring the very smallest class of activity, what I call micro experiments. I've found that trying little things like these is a great way to test-drive treating things as experiments, and maybe offer the chance for non-QS'ers to dip their toes in the idea of tracking on a tiny scale. (Of course you shouldn't risk shortening your life over any.) Researching the idea didn't turn up much, though Micro-Experiments and Evolution was stimulating.

Here are some examples I've tried and their results. Are they true experiments? Are they useful? I'm curious to know what you think.

Jing: I tried using Jing, a free tool for doing short screencasts, to explain a bug I found in my site. I usually write them up, but because it was complex, it would have taken a lot to explain it. Instead I created a four-minute screencast, emailed the link to my developer, and measured the results. Conclusion: Worked great! Time to record: 4 minutes. His understanding of the problem: High. Enjoyment level of trying a new tool: Fun.

Testing expectations: Left unchecked, I tend to be pessimistic and anxious, which I continue working to improve. Here's a technique I stumbled on that works well in micro experiment form. The idea is to treat your expectations as a model, make your assumptions and predictions explicit, then put them to the test. I applied it to two difficult phone calls I had scheduled, and found that my expectations were way off. In one case I was asking a fellow writer for a favor (mentioning an ebook I created), and instead of turning me down (my working model), he was happy to help. The other was a sales call in my last career to a prospective client, which I expected to go swimmingly. Instead it was a disaster! After analyzing what happened and comparing it to my model, I formed a couple of new ideas on how to do future ones. Surprisingly, the minute I thought of these as an experiments and wrote down my expectations, I felt immediate relief before the calls.

Pay for someone's parking: As a touchy-feely micro experiment, I was standing in line to pay for parking at a garage, and on a lark I decided to pay the next person's fee (it's almost always $0.50). I didn't know how they'd react (find it odd and refuse, for example), but the result: Evident happiness level of subject: High (I got a nice smile). My feeling: Walked away with a lighter step.

Disabling email: I continue to struggle keeping email from sucking my time and attention, so I tried disabling my email program for a day. This email vacation was helpful, but surprisingly uncomfortable. Not being able to monitor it clearly indicated a bit of an addiction. I didn't end up adopting it.

Decisions and glue: I sometimes stress about getting something new perfect the first time. Yes it's unrealistic, but that's the brain I'm stuck with. Treating the decision as a micro experiment helps me enjoy things more. For example, I had to repair two broken lawn chairs at home, and couldn't decide which of two glues to try. Then I realized this was a natural parallel type of experiment, and tried them both, one per chair. Result: Gorilla glue worked far better than the GOOP. Trivial? Maybe, but next time I don't have to wonder.

Not eating before exercise: Eating breakfast is commonly considered important, so I wondered what would happen if I skipped eating all morning then mountain biking at 1pm for an hour. Result: My performance was just fine, but I was hungry afterwards! Now I don't worry so much if I'm pressed for time.

Getting a bank fee waived: My wife needed a document notarized, so I brought her to the mega-bank where I was forced to do business for a time. The teller said she couldn't do notarize it because my wife wasn't listed on my account. In a bold (for me) move I did a social experiment by asking for the manager, who ended up OK'ing it, no problem. I was a little embarrassed until I thought of it experimentally.

Chocolate skin, cranberry sauce: There are lots of ways to experiment in the kitchen; here are two micro experiments I tried. First, I drink hot chocolate every morning (melt the expensive dark stuff into milk) and it sometimes develops a skin on top. (Hey - I discovered pudding!) To avoid that, I tried putting the heat on high and stirring constantly, instead of my usual medium heat with less stirring. The question was whether heat/time would affect skin forming. Result: ~50% reduction. As a second example, we had some leftover cranberries (I live in New England) and I wanted to make a sauce, but I was too lazy to follow a time-consuming recipe. Instead I microwaved a handful of them in a bowl with a little orange juice and honey. Result: An explosion of flavor. (Literally - it blew up while cooking.) Edibility was marginal.


Famous Examples of Self-Experimentation [Guest Post]

Toledo Scale

Continuing my guest post experiment, here's one by Louise Baker who writes at Zen College Life. Feel free to propose one of your own. Thanks to Louise. -- matt

Lab rats aren't always the chosen subjects for scientific experiments. Throughout the history of the field, scientists and physicians have been putting their own health and well-being on the line in an attempt to better understand the human body. Some of them were simply trying to better understand the body better; others were actually trying to prove their own theories correct. While they were not all successful, their contributions have led to a greater understanding of our bodies.

The Weighing Chair

In the 1600's, Sanctorius wanted to study metabolism. He weighed himself, as well as everything he ate, drank, and eliminated; every day for 30 years. More than simply weighing himself, he literally lived on the scales. His efforts paid off with a better understanding of perspiration.


Albert Hofmann, the man who gave us LSD, was the first person to experience an "acid trip." It happened while riding his bike home after accidentally ingesting some of his creation. He intentionally took the drug again and then went on another bike ride to determine if the trip was accidental, or a direct result of the drug.


Donald Unger wanted to prove that cracking your knuckles did not contribute to the development of arthritis. He spent fifty years cracking only the knuckles on his left hand to make his point. He proudly displayed his hands when he was awarded the Ig Nobel Award in Medicine. His hands are both healthy, with no arthritis. He also pointed out to his mother that she was wrong.

Self-Mutilation for Science

Patients with nerve damage can have trouble expressing how or what they are feeling. Dr. Henry Head wanted to study the effects, and was frustrated by this simple fact. His solution was to slice open his arm and sever some nerves himself. He was very specific, and had another doctor help him. He initially lost all sensation on the arm, but less than 3 months later had almost all the sensation back.

Staring at the Sun

Sir Isaac Newton started at the sun for so long that a black mark developed on the back of his eyelids. He was 22 years old and stared at the sun through a mirror. He wanted to study those after-images that this kind of exposure leaves on your retinas. He nearly blinded himself.

The Cause of Ulcers

Wanting to prove that the microbe Helicobacter pylori would cause ulcers, physician Barry James Marshall drank a Petri dish full of the bacteria. As a result of his research, thousands of ulcer patients have been treated and ultimately cured with antibiotics instead of taking lifelong courses of acid suppressants.

Scientists that are truly dedicated are often willing to experiment on themselves in order to more accurately collect data and test theories. The potential benefit to the medical field is great. However, they still should take care not to permanently injure or blind themselves in the name of science.

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