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The Examined Life: 2009

2009 has been a well documented year for me[1]. All year, I've been tracking my time in 15 minute increments using Bubble Timer (as I said I would a year ago). Now, with a little SQL magic, I can look at my entire year in one picture:

Nifty, eh? Each data point is one week; each color is a different activity. I'm not saying what each color is, for my own privacy[2], but a couple of them are:
  • The blue on the bottom is "sleeping"
  • The top is "Other" (notice how it fills in the cracks to make most days pretty consistent)
  • Other stuff in the middle includes Work, School, Music, Dog Walking, Housework, Food, Exercise, Reading, Personal, Web Surfing, Entertainment and Hanging out. But not in that order.

It's fairly consistent over time, but things do change; for example, all spring and summer, I worked on my Masters Degree, and then it ended in August, after which time I moved on to spending (some of) that time learning Pedal Steel guitar:

(Blue (on the left) is time spent doing school work. Red (on the right) is time spent learning the new instrument.)

In addition to tracking my time by category, I also "tag" certain time, like time spent listening to music. When I looked at that, I saw a disturbing trend throughout the year:

What's up with that? Turns out that in the fall, I diverted a lot of my listening time into "listening while practicing" time (I often practice by playing along with music), which I didn't also tag as music listening time. When I add that back in, I get it moving to a nice steady state:

Of course, it's not just for tracking trends over time; I can also see patterns in how I spend my time during a single day. For example, here's a 24 hour plot of how I spend the majority of my time:

And my daily routines are evident (though still pretty flexible, as evidenced by the large spread):

Was all this effort worth it? Who cares, it's pretty. :)

Seriously, though, I do actually enjoy both the tracking (which keeps me mindful of how I spend my time) as well as the eventual analysis (which hopefully gets easier as time goes on).

What's up in 2010? A few things. First, in reading a book called Beautiful Data, I stumbled across this self-tracking web site:

It uses Twitter as a collection interface to let you track anything you want to (moods, hygiene, health, exercise, etc.). Been trying it out for a few days and I like what it does so far (it's got lots of visualizations built in - in fact, that's the focus of the research effort). I'll also continue using Livestrong (which I mentioned here, and recently got an Ajax-y revamp so it's easier to use). I'm also thinking about getting a Fit Bit, which automatically tracks all your movements and sleeping patterns using built-in accelerometers.

I also learned this year that I'm not the only person who's interested in tracking all of this stuff about my life. In fact, there's a burgeoning community of "Self Trackers", with blogs like The Quantified Self. So, while I am most certainly OCD about it, at least I'm not the only one.

[1] - Some might even say my year has been a little too well documented. And by "some" I mean "my wife". But I guess she should know, since I spent 34.8% of my waking time with her this year.

[2] - Or putting axes on the graph, so that nobody comes back and complains that I am, say, spending 300 hours a year playing video games. Not that I am.



Since reading Omnivore's Dilemma this fall, I've been more tuned in to the "local food" scene. I'm fortunate to live in a place where not only is that possible most of the year, but lots of other people are interested in it too.

Thus: Austin Eat Local Week. They've got a bevy of local joints participating, a local farms Bike Tour (that I'm actually missing right now, sadly) and several other events throughout the week.

JAM and I started off the week right with a basket from Farmhouse Delivery (sadly, without any bread from {name of amazing secret bread lady withheld})[1]. The produce was great:

Beets, Scallions, Peppers

Beet It

About To Become Soup

You Say Tomato

We hastily converted much of it to calories in the form of dinner, including the giant mutant radishes:

Crazy Radishes

It does not escape me that this bounty comes to us in freaking December. But as if to prove that, even here, we are not exempt from the seasons, we actually got freezing temperatures and a frost last night:


This morning, the dawg and I hit Boggy Creek Farm (about 6 minutes drive from our house) and collected some eggs, sweet potatoes, and other goodies. Boggy creek is beautiful, and especially nice to visit during a week when everyone has the local food chain on their minds.

Turnips ... ?

Boggy Creek Sweet Potatoes

Red Tractor

Hope we can make it to several other Austin farms and restaurants this week to enjoy the bounty of locally grown food.

By the way - all the proceeds from Eat Local Week events go to support Urban Roots, a non-profit that my friend Mike runs. They take inner city kids and put them on farms, where they are immediately eaten by wild boars, or something. Seriously, they're a totally awesome cause, so check them out as well.

Now then. Anyone have any idea how I can get local Pop Tarts?

[1] - The bread from the amazing secret bread lady is so amazing that I can't tell you about because if anyone else finds out how awesome it is, we'll never be able to get any. But you can find her goods at Dai Due and East Side Showroom.


Happy Birthday, House

It's the 1-year anniversary of moving into our new home at the Mueller redevelopment. It's been a wild year, and doesn't seem like that much time has passed. I love living here - the people are extraordinarily friendly, we love our house, and I spend time running the trails almost every day. Here are some pictures I took on my run this morning:

Lake Park

On Simond Avenue

Flowers In The Park

Lake Park Steps

Mueller Hangar

Running Trail

Sculpture Garden

The Two Towers

Flight Control

Just 29 more years until we pay it off! Hm.

More photos here.


Garbage Out

As further evidence of my late onset OCD (see Bubble Timing), I've recently picked up a new obsession: tracking nutrition. (At this point, anyone who knows me is probably assuming this blog has been hijacked.)

It started with a general feeling of out-of-shapeness. The long hours of graduate school (plus working full time, touring, etc ...) had taken their toll on my health, and I was looking a bit, er, round in the middle. I do exercise (I run regularly) but it wasn't noticeable. For a tall skinny kid who used to down entire pies without a blip on the scale, my early-30s were a shock of actually being, you know, human.

That's when I picked up a book called The End Of Overeating:

Written by David Kessler (former FDA commissioner), it explains why we learn, over a lifetime, to compulsively eat larger amounts of fat, sugar and salt than we need (hint: it's partly our biology, and partly "the man"). Long and short of it is, while we are conditioned to "hyper eat" as he calls it, you can do something about it.

About the same time, I found an iPhone app (with an associated web site) from Livestrong.com (Austin biking champ Lance Armstrong's company) called the Daily Plate. The idea is simple: you enter what foods you eat, and it automatically tracks the nutrition info: calories, fat, protein, carbs, vitamins, etc. They have a huge database of commercial and generic foods, so almost anything you might eat is already in there (and it's wiki-like enough that you can edit or add your own foods, too). It shows running totals and compares it to your goal:

This thought--that you could actually quantify the amount of energy you're taking in, versus what you're expending--was totally revelatory. My database-addled brain said, "I know how to do this."

So I started counting calories. My first revelation--I was on tour at the time--was that I was regularly eating upwards of 3500 calories a day. (The suggested diet for adults is between 2000 and 2500.) I also started to realize that I could actually predict my cravings and moods based on what I'd eaten in the previous 24 hours; for example, if I go without eating all day until dinner time, I desperately want to eat something fried and covered with cheese ("fat on salt on sugar on fat", as Kessler calls it).

So I changed how I eat. It was rough at first[1], but I'm actually really enjoying it now--I monitor and record everything I eat, and shoot for 1500 - 2000 calories a day. Drinking turns out to be the strongest predictor of going over my calorie limits (duh!) but now that I know that, I can at least plan for it a little better. In the month that I've been doing it, I've lost almost 15 pounds:

Next up: getting a body bugg! (Or a sub-dermal implant, whichever is cheaper.)

[1] - At one point, a band mate threatened to take away the solitary cheese stick I was allowing myself as a snack, and I almost cried. (I felt better after listening to some Indigo Girls and reading the Nanny Diaries.)


Damn It Feels Good To Be A Master

So, my 2-year long odyssey into the wilds of higher education has now come to an end. Behold!

You may now refer to me as "Master Varley", "Ian Varley, MSE", or just "Master" if you're tight on time. I graduated at the top of my class (or at least, I got a 4.0 average, which I don't think anybody else surpassed.)

My masters' thesis* was called "No Relation: The Mixed Blessings of Non-Relational Databases". Should you have a burning desire to ruin your day and a few hours to spare, you can read it here.

Next up: learning to play pedal steel guitar. Anybody got one I can borrow? I've been told it takes about 4 years of practice at 8 hours per day to really get the hang of it. No sweat.

* - Technically it was a "Masters Report", which I think in theory means it's supposed to be shorter. But mine was really long (115 pages) so I think it's OK to call it a thesis. :)


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