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March 8, 2012 10:44 AM   Subscribe

The Personal Analytics of My Life by Stephen Wolfram
posted by jjray (59 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
If only Terrence McKenna were alive today, he'd be able to calculate the exact date Stephen Wolfram hits the singularity and becomes self-aware.
posted by griphus at 10:50 AM on March 8, 2012 [18 favorites]


I love informatics like this. Thanks for the post.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:59 AM on March 8, 2012


He's sure on the phone a lot
posted by exogenous at 11:00 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find this neat, but the sheer amount of spying on himself he does is a little bit creepy. Still cool to see him draw conclusions from it.
posted by yerfatma at 11:01 AM on March 8, 2012


At first glance it seems that thanks to the awesome automated capabilities of Wolfram Alpha Pro he has been able to discover that he doesn't send email when he's asleep.
posted by philipy at 11:02 AM on March 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


I have a high bounce rate*


*see gender profile
posted by stormpooper at 11:02 AM on March 8, 2012


Missing metric - Number of times I sued someone for publishing their own paper because I think everyone who works in my lab should give me sole authorship: 1.
posted by jaduncan at 11:03 AM on March 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


I find this neat, but the sheer amount of spying on himself he does is a little bit creepy.

Google spies on you.
Wolfram spies on ... Wolfram.

So it's got that going for it.
posted by chavenet at 11:04 AM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah that guy spends a lot of time on the phone.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:05 AM on March 8, 2012


mmm......a fine example of data-driven analytical autoproctology.
posted by lalochezia at 11:05 AM on March 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


I love things like this. If only there was something better than Daytum to track this stuff.
posted by Brian Puccio at 11:08 AM on March 8, 2012


Me too, Brian Puccio. Gods, the data porn... mmmmm....
posted by IAmBroom at 11:11 AM on March 8, 2012


I once had a psychotherapist tell me in therapy session:

"you are not living your life; you are thinking it."

I would love to send him this blog post but we aren't any longer communicating.
posted by bukvich at 11:12 AM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Hmmmm. I can't help wanting to see the data on other family members, especially the mother of his children (offspring who think he's nocturnal) and who, I believe, also does Maths.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:17 AM on March 8, 2012


I have so much envy. After reading that I begun researching ways to log all my keystrokes. I already have all my chat logs and emails dating back to 1995, basic computer activity since 2006, and all my foot steps since 2008, but I never thought of recording key strokes. I want a time machine right this instant.
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:17 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jesus, man. Read a book. Have a beer.
posted by cmoj at 11:22 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


maxwelton, looking at your life graphs, it appears you spent most of your life looking at funny pictures, masturbating, and eating--not necessarily in that order. Oh, and the "disappointing others" graph had to have the y-axis rescaled. Not good.
posted by maxwelton at 11:23 AM on March 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


And, dammit... I had misremembered Wolfram as the author of The Hacker's Diet, but it turns out that was the progenitor of AutoCAD.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:24 AM on March 8, 2012


It's a very crude form of computer-aided introspection. I can see the potential, such as helping people with addictions or more generally, things about their behavior they would like to change. Just two weeks ago I decided to compile my credit card spending over the last few months; one of the outcomes of that is that I'm now actually bringing lunch to work instead of eating out.
posted by polymodus at 11:25 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just two weeks ago I decided to compile my credit card spending over the last few months; one of the outcomes of that is that I'm now actually bringing lunch to work instead of eating out.

As the saying goes, "what gets measured gets changed." I've been tracking my finances in minute detail for years and as time has passed I've found that I'm much more concious of how I'm spending money. Same thing with tracking my eating and weight every day. Maybe I'll eat some cookies or something but I'm fully aware of what it means for my diet later in the day.
posted by zrail at 11:34 AM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Stephen also did a really good IAmA over at Reddit a few days ago.

I worked with the guy for a few years, and I can certainly testify that most of the important emails from him were sent around 2 AM. I wish the working world catered more to night owls, because my brain tends to do great things after midnight.
posted by naju at 11:37 AM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


To defend my own habits here are some fun facts off the top of my head.

MetaFilter is positively correlated with time spent working. But there is a twist here. If I get to work first thing in the morning. I will for whatever reason, begin working again after MetaFilter if, and only if, I start working immediately after I wake up. If instead MetaFilter is enjoyed first then I am more likely to never get off of MetaFilter for the rest of the day. So MetaFilter works as a break in one case, but not in another. If I had keystrokes logged then I could see if I tend to write more comments on MetaFilter in the second case than the first. I suspect so, but maybe not?

The number of different words I used peaked in 2006. I now use a smaller vocabulary but still a larger one than the one I boasted before 2001. I emailed and IM'd more people before 2008 than after, but I now spend more time in conversation than I did before 2008. I am working on a way to get at sentence length but I don't always use punctuation, so it is tricky.

I've also tracked my SuperMemo data for the last three years. I found that I have a slight increase in learning if I play TF2 immediately before I work through my cards for the day. I should really get a blog up just discussing my personal statistics.

I wish I tracked sleep data, but if I had only tracked keystrokes I could approximate it. Oh, my kingdom for a time machine.
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:42 AM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm really ambivalent about this. On the one hand: COOL! That's an awful lot of data, and that's pretty neat. On the other hand: So? Even he seems underwhelmed by his conclusions. None of this really measures anything about being, you know, a person. It's all mechanics, some of it in very raw form. And the conclusions are completely banal. "I slept during these hours." "I opened a different type of file during these years." Seriously, so what?

When I compare it to other solipsistic activities, like reading through my own comments that have been favorited, it still seems strange and pointless. At least when I read old comments I get a glimpse into what I was thinking at a given time. I may not be able to tell you how many blueberries were in the yogurt I was eating when I posted, but is that really important?
posted by OmieWise at 11:55 AM on March 8, 2012


Self-reflective? Or self-obsessed? What some others think.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:58 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting link.

Wolfram possesses many attributes of a pseudoscientist: (1) he makes grandiose claims, (2) works in isolation, (3) did not go through the normal peer-review process, (4) published his own book, (5) does not adequately acknowledge his predecessors, and (6) rejects a well-established theory of at least one famous scientist.

This sounds a lot like Isaac Newton though.
posted by philipy at 12:10 PM on March 8, 2012


Yeah, but who wants to eat a Fig Wolfram? Blech.

Also, Newton at least knew the literature.
posted by erniepan at 12:23 PM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's not that I would even take the time to think about whether A New Kind of Science is right. I haven't so far and I'm not likely to.

Just that it's strange that in a supposedly scientific discussion like the one there, what amounts to "he's weird and arrogant" is considered relevant.
posted by philipy at 12:33 PM on March 8, 2012


This sounds a lot like Isaac Newton though.

That's an empty comparison, as Newton was working at a time when the peer-review process didn't exist, and when self-publishing of academic monographs was the norm rather than the exception. Newton didn't work in isolation, either--he was extremely active in the Royal Academy of Sciences, and in the general scientific community at Cambridge.

I am reminded of Carl Sagan's comment about how people laughed at both Galileo and Bozo. Not that I think Wolfram is necessarily Bozo, but he's certainly closer to that than Galileo.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:42 PM on March 8, 2012


If only Terrence McKenna were alive today, he'd be able to calculate the exact date Stephen Wolfram hits the singularity and becomes self-aware.

Stephen Wolfram will never be self-aware.
posted by scalefree at 12:43 PM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


what amounts to "he's weird and arrogant" is considered relevant.

That isn't the claim at all. The claim is much more specific than that, and relates directly to what it means to be a scientist in the modern world:
(1) he makes grandiose claims, (2) works in isolation, (3) did not go through the normal peer-review process, (4) published his own book, (5) does not adequately acknowledge his predecessors, and (6) rejects a well-established theory of at least one famous scientist.
Other than (1), none are about his personality, they're all about how he does or does not follow accepted scientific practice.
posted by OmieWise at 12:45 PM on March 8, 2012


> Not that I think Wolfram is necessarily Bozo, but he's certainly closer to that than Galileo.

This is not even close to factual. Wolfram is something like the youngest Physics PhD in the history of Cal Tech.

He received a Ph.D. in particle physics from the California Institute of Technology at age 20 is what it says on the wikipedia page right now. Nevertheless it is pretty funny reading his critics. It's probably been taken down by now but one of the reviewers called New Kind Science a blend of raging megalomania and utter batshit insanity. If people were writing that about me and posting it on the internet I think I'd be flattered.
posted by bukvich at 1:25 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


...the telepresence robot I got recently has mostly been standing idle

Those are the real words the man wrote. "The telepresence robot I got recently". That's what he wrote. Right there. He wrote that.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:42 PM on March 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is not even close to factual. Wolfram is something like the youngest Physics PhD in the history of Cal Tech.

There's a big difference between earning a Ph.D. in particle physics, even at a very young age, and even from a very prestigious school, and being Galileo. I mean, Galileo.

That said, yeah, "Bozo" is unfair and I was riffing off the Sagan joke overly broadly. But Wolfram's extraordinary claims haven't, to date, been backed up by extraordinary evidence, which also makes him different from Galileo and Newton and Marie Curie and insert your favorite actual game-changing scientist here.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:47 PM on March 8, 2012


Cosma Shalizi has a pretty good claim to be incredibly butt-ass smart, so here's his take on A New Kind of Science.
posted by kenko at 1:49 PM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


This may not be the most exciting example of personal analytics - at least for those of us who don't happen to be Wolfram and aren't planning to try to hack into his keystroke archive - but, the topic is certainly interesting.

I wonder what legal systems will do once ubiquitous, automatic archiving of real world data becomes common. How long will it be before a civil suit compels someone to hand over their gps and EkG logs in order to demonstrate a sexual relationship? When will the point-of-view video feed from the friend of a defendant show up in a criminal trial? What about the video feed from the bike messenger who the police phoned because their publicly viewable gps tracker showed they happened to pass by a street corner just before a burglary. What will this mean for the justice system?

As a defendant, being able to prove that you weren't resisting arrest, or killing your neighbor, or driving while drunk could be a really good thing. Is it a good enough thing to make up for having a discoverable record of every illegal (or embarrassing) act you've ever committed, controlled not by you but by everyone who happens to share your physical space? Depends on how likely you think it is that you'll be falsely accused of something, I guess.

It could be that we're already most of the way there, now that everyone carries a location tracker on them at all times and so much of our interactions leave behind a digital record. But, so far at least, the cellphone in your pocket is unlikely to be recording my conversation, and with some combination of encryption, plausible deniability, and protections from self-incrimination, I have some hope of keeping my own data from being used against me.
posted by eotvos at 1:51 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


"you are not living your life; you are thinking it."
I never thought those two things might be mutually exclusive. I still really hope they aren't. But I have to admit: if they are, that would explain a lot.
posted by roystgnr at 1:58 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


This guy's Christmas newsletters must be a scream.
posted by mazola at 2:08 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The thing about Wolfram is that his very existence is like a big middle finger to all of academia. They hate him because he doesn't play by their rules but instead flouts them. Consequently most of the criticism of him tends to be more about his style rather than his ideas directly.

They hate him because he was able to beat them at their own game by getting a PhD at 20 from Cal Tech and making a number of contributions in math and physics before most academics had even gotten their PhDs. Then, instead of staying as professor like the rules say, he went off and founded a successful company and created a piece of software which is widely used in academia today.

And with all the money he got he was able to fund his own research for years. Part of it is jealousy because most researchers would love to be in that position. But more of it comes from the fact that he doesn't jump through all the hoops of peer review and conferences that all of them do. And that's where the accusations that he's some kind crank pseuodscientist come in. Essentially they confuse the trappings of science with science itself.

I haven't read his book and I don't know if it represents a significant contribution but I suspect that most of his critics don't know either and probably don't even care.
posted by euphorb at 2:42 PM on March 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


euphorb--That may be true, and it may just be that Worfram is a maverick, but how do you tell the difference between a crank and a maverick? The "trappings of science," which we might disagree about the centrality and utility of, are part of how you show your seriousness. People all over the internet love to talk about how Einstein never had a lick of schooling before he made his huge contributions, but it's not true.

(I really know very little about Wolfram, and don't have a particular dog in this fight.)
posted by OmieWise at 3:09 PM on March 8, 2012


Essentially they confuse the trappings of science with science itself.

This is your hypothesis, now how will you prove it?
posted by zippy at 3:18 PM on March 8, 2012


You can't prove a hypothesis. You can only disprove one.
posted by euphorb at 3:23 PM on March 8, 2012


This degree of self-recording speaks to a truly impressive degree of either egomania or insecurity, and possibly both. I can't imagine even experiencing the neurotic impulse to record every keystroke I've ever typed, much less actually carrying that impulse out. It's as if Wolfram has decided to make sure the state vector of his life stays the fuck collapsed, motherfucker.

I might have been Wolfram had I had different parents. Instead of encouraging my precociousness they held me back, hoping to make me more "normal." I've often resented those lost opportunities but they might have been right. It certainly took me some effort to learn how to socialize with people whose test scores aren't 5 sigmas out, and if I didn't have to do it to earn a living I might never have bothered.

I think what happened to Wolfram is he had an essentially religious epiphany similar to one I had in the early 1990's, when I went through a period of intense interest in fractal mathematics. (Wolfram's CA's of ANKOS are actually a special case of the broader class of systems I was playing with.) I became convinced, and am to this day, as Wolfram seems to be convinced, that the Universe is a finite state machine of relatively simple design but capable of storing and manipulating a hell of a lot of information, and the reason it looks the way it does is the same reason that fractals and CA patterns look the way they do -- the complexity emerges from the combination of simple algorithms, recursion, and lots of information storage. The ever-increasingly abstract and convoluted continuous schema proposed by physicists seem ridiculous and unconvincing by comparison.

The difference between us is that I didn't feel either the capability or the need to convince everyone else I'm right. I am forthrightly arrogant about certain things involving information theory, such as the ability to micro-manage complex brain wiring from the genome, but I don't think we are at a point where we can even start looking for rules which the Universe might (I think very likely) be actively hiding from us.

So I carry what I consider the most important implication of my epiphany in relative quiet -- and that is, we do not need a God or conscious Creator to explain why the Universe looks the way it does with interesting and complex forms. The machinery necessary to create such forms is so simple that in an appropriate medium it might have arisen by some process akin to crystal formation or the earliest stages of evolutionary biogenesis. Problem solved.

But I also realize that this is essentially a religious epiphany, and I can't justify it as a viable alternative to systems that have shown actual predictive value. I essentially find it a more elegant and beautiful assumption, a judgement that relies heavily on my aesthetic sense which was in turn formed by years of hand coding machine code on primitive personal computers. How other people see the Mona Lisa, I see the Parallax P8X32A "Propeller." So I state my case and move on, knowing it is a personal vision best not pushed too hard when shared.

That is the bit of wisdom Wolfram missed learning, which might be the advantage I received by dropping out of college at 19 with 96 hours toward an EE degree instead of actually getting my Ph.D. at a similar age.
posted by localroger at 4:15 PM on March 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


There is no doubt in my mind that the reach of his claims is out of the bounds of science, but the guy is fascinating. I suspect LSD or something similar, in that they really approach that Terrance McKenna December 20, 2012 mode. But there is a 90 minute talk on line (link) that he gave at UCSD which is about the most interesting 90 minutes of video I have ever seen including his own search for a Theory of Everything, why Natural Selection is way too reductionistic, and how even apparently inert rocks may well be alive if you loosen the definition of life one tiny epsilon beyond viruses. Aliens. It's great shit to watch sober but it might be hazardous to your mental health if you watch the sucker while tripping on hallucinogens.
posted by bukvich at 4:15 PM on March 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


But the trappings of science are science.
What is trappingless science?

"The earth is an oblate spheroid."

It's true. But it isn't science because it's true.
You may learned it from a revelation by the Great God Gooliwakaka.
posted by hexatron at 4:15 PM on March 8, 2012


The point of peer review is that things get scrutinized thoroughly.

The point of reviewing blind is that they get scrutinized without any bias either for or against them based on preconceptions about the people or institutions responsible.

So it might be ideal if the work was peer reviewed through a proper system.

But if it wasn't, the thing to do would be to scrutinize it thoroughly, while trying to avoid bias based on the characteristics of who or where it came from.

It may be that cranks often write in green ink, but I really don't want people telling me "This is wrong because it was written in green ink". Fair enough if you say, "I didn't trouble to read this because it came in the mail from some random person and it was written in green ink". But if you want to tell me something is wrong, just tell me what's wrong with it, and never mind the color of the ink.
posted by philipy at 4:34 PM on March 8, 2012


Meh. My work relies heavily on making sense of large amounts of data and this doesn't really get my rocks off. What's impressive about it is the data stewardship (i.e., that he's simply got the data at all, and can access it in a uniform way) but the presentations and the conclusions are pretty meh. News flash: scheduled phone calls tend to start on the hour and half-hour!

Though I did notice that the man spends a ton of time on the phone between the hours of 8 pm and midnight, including on weekends, and as others have observed, is heavily productive in terms of email generation during those hours as well. One notes that he does not have (or at least does not share here) detailed metrics about his love life, and hopes that he's a sex-in-the-morning kinda guy.
posted by Sublimity at 5:06 PM on March 8, 2012


bukvich: I'm not sure if I can bear to watch Wolfram for ninety minutes. That will either be fascinating or infuriating. I'll collapse the wavefunction later, because I am still pretending to work right now.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:06 PM on March 8, 2012


I came here to post the Cosma Shalizi link but @kenko beat me to it. The main criticism of Wolfram is not style -- Shalizi cogently argues that ANKofS contains some that is true and some that is new, but very very little that's both, and that Wolfram's 'independent discoveries' are a whole lot of old news. i.e. It's not that he's not 'playing by the rules,' it's that he's doing a well-understood variety of bad science.
posted by waxbanks at 5:33 PM on March 8, 2012


Fuck, Terrence McKenna is dead? I just started reading the guy. Blah.
posted by waxbanks at 5:33 PM on March 8, 2012


Fuck, Terrence McKenna is dead?

Brain cancer of all things. It's like the sheer volume of psychedelic compounds he ingested began augmenting entire neuron structures until the overlords noticed and said holy shit, we need to stop him.
posted by Taft at 8:40 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


If I ever measure my life by email, somebody please shoot me.
posted by A dead Quaker at 9:35 PM on March 8, 2012


You can't prove a hypothesis. You can only disprove one.

You can't do either. You can have confidence within some percentage range that your answer is so-and-so. That's about as good as you can do with the math we have.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:41 AM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


"The earth is an oblate spheroid."

It's true. But it isn't science because it's true.
You may learned it from a revelation by the Great God Gooliwakaka.


You teach people about science with the obvious stuff. You need science for the incredibly complex, counterintuitive stuff that stumps even Gooliwakaka.
posted by chavenet at 4:57 AM on March 9, 2012


This Feynman to Wolfram letter was linked in the Reddit IMA.
posted by bukvich at 6:02 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Feynman to Wolfram letter

Sounds like's advising him to be Feynman. i.e. Avoid admin and fall madly in love.

Nice work if you can get it.
posted by philipy at 7:30 AM on March 9, 2012


cf from Richard Hamming: You and Your Research

Question: Would you compare research and management?

Hamming: If you want to be a great researcher, you won't make it being president of the company. If you want to be president of the company, that's another thing. I'm not against being president of the company. I just don't want to be. I think Ian Ross does a good job as President of Bell Labs. I'm not against it; but you have to be clear on what you want. Furthermore, when you're young, you may have picked wanting to be a great scientist, but as you live longer, you may change your mind. For instance, I went to my boss, Bode, one day and said, ``Why did you ever become department head? Why didn't you just be a good scientist?'' He said, ``Hamming, I had a vision of what mathematics should be in Bell Laboratories. And I saw if that vision was going to be realized, I had to make it happen; I had to be department head.'' When your vision of what you want to do is what you can do single-handedly, then you should pursue it. The day your vision, what you think needs to be done, is bigger than what you can do single-handedly, then you have to move toward management. And the bigger the vision is, the farther in management you have to go. If you have a vision of what the whole laboratory should be, or the whole Bell System, you have to get there to make it happen. You can't make it happen from the bottom very easily. It depends upon what goals and what desires you have. And as they change in life, you have to be prepared to change. I chose to avoid management because I preferred to do what I could do single-handedly. But that's the choice that I made, and it is biased. Each person is entitled to their choice. Keep an open mind. But when you do choose a path, for heaven's sake be aware of what you have done and the choice you have made. Don't try to do both sides.

posted by philipy at 7:40 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


OK I finished most of the Reddit IMA. There's people out there who hate Wolfram as much as people hate Jobs. Here is Wolfram's memorial piece for Jobs. The best Wolfram answer in the IMA: go type hamlet into wolfram|alpha and see what it returns!

(I did and it is very interesting.)
posted by bukvich at 9:19 AM on March 9, 2012


The best Wolfram answer in the IMA: go type hamlet into wolfram|alpha and see what it returns!

Neat. I was excited enough to try typing in some other book names, but for those I was only given Author and maybe date information.
posted by nobody at 2:49 PM on March 10, 2012


There was a similar level of detail for Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which was the first one I tried after Hamlet. After that I got three strikes and out and quit playing with it.
posted by bukvich at 3:25 PM on March 12, 2012


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