Self Quantify Guide

Running X-Ray Man

If you could monitor—in detail—how your body responds to what you do or don’t do, could you change your life for the bet­ter? The tech­nol­o­gy to do just that is becom­ing acces­si­ble, and an increas­ing num­ber of peo­ple are using devices to col­lect and com­mu­ni­cate detailed per­son­al infor­ma­tion. Their objec­tive is to improve their ath­let­ic per­for­mance, to man­age a health prob­lem, or sim­ply to dis­cov­er what works best for them.

Dive into these posts to dis­cov­er how mea­sur­ing and track­ing your own para­me­ters help you improve your fit­ness, your per­for­mance, your game, and over­all well being.

Measure Up!

Running X-Ray Man

You don’t need to have a degree in med­ical sci­ence to track many para­me­ters that affect your per­son­al well-being and use that infor­ma­tion for your bet­ter­ment. A vari­ety of devices are avail­able to con­sumers for mon­i­tor­ing, upload­ing, track­ing, ana­lyz­ing, and report­ing para­me­ters that can affect you. Mea­sure and track your­self to achieve a num­ber of fit­ness and well­ness objectives.

Please seek help from a doc­tor or oth­er health pro­fes­sion­al for med­ical advice. The infor­ma­tion pre­sent­ed here and else­where on this web­site is based on the author’s research and per­son­al expe­ri­ence and is not intend­ed to be used to diag­nose or treat any dis­ease, ill­ness or med­ical condition.

To track any­thing, the one com­mon essen­tial is a record of the data in a form con­ve­nient for analy­sis. Unless you have a whole lot of time for crunch­ing num­bers and draw­ing graphs, you’ll want the record to be on a com­put­er, either your own or a Web serv­er, and you’ll want soft­ware to be avail­able to do the crunch­ing and the drawing.

But for now, let’s just look at those para­me­ters that are most acces­si­ble for self-track­ing. We’ll men­tion where track­ing can be auto­mat­ic, but will address tools for gath­er­ing and ana­lyz­ing data in a lat­er post.

Track Body and Mind

Body and mind mea­sure­ments take a snap­shot at a par­tic­u­lar point in time to ask the ques­tion, “How are you doing now?” Some val­ues, such as heart rate, can change moment-to-moment, while oth­ers vary more slow­ly through the day. For most of these, devices are avail­able that can auto­mat­i­cal­ly upload data to a Web serv­er for easy tracking.

Weight and Body Fat

Though you can mea­sure body mass (weight) with a com­mon bath­room scale, quan­ti­fiers pre­fer one capa­ble of auto­mat­i­cal­ly upload­ing the data to an online data­base for track­ing. Scales from With­ings and Fit­bit are popular.

Some scales, includ­ing those just men­tioned, com­bine body fat mea­sure­ment along with weight. They pass a small cur­rent through your body from one bare foot to the oth­er to get a mea­sure of your body’s elec­tri­cal resis­tance (you might see the tech­ni­cal term “imped­ance”), then use that val­ue to deter­mine the per­cent­age of your total body weight that is fat. This inex­pen­sive body imped­ance analy­sis pro­vides a more accu­rate track­ing of body fat than does body mass index (BMI), which is sim­ply a ratio of weight to height. (Drink a glass of water: your body fat per­cent­age goes down while BMI goes up!)

Heart Rate

Check your pulse, count the num­ber of beats in 30 sec­onds and mul­ti­ply by two to get your heart rate. You don’t need any­thing more than a watch with a sec­ond hand (or sec­ond dig­its) to deter­mine your heart rate. But heart rate varies with activ­i­ty, health and stress, and it isn’t often con­ve­nient to stop, take a mea­sure­ment, pull out your smart­phone and enter the num­ber in your online data­base. Strapped around the chest and wire­less­ly linked to a watch or smart­phone for data upload, prod­ucts from Garmin, Polar and oth­ers will do that for you.

But your heart beat holds more data than rate. Like all clocks, your heart jit­ters; the time from one beat to the next varies just a bit, beat to beat. Heart rate vari­abil­i­ty (HRV) — a mea­sure of heart jit­ter dur­ing a short episode — is not con­stant but depends on lev­el of activ­i­ty, time of day, and fac­tors inde­pen­dent of activ­i­ty, such as stress and over­all health. Devices that mea­sure HRV are mov­ing from the clin­ic to the gym, and ath­letes are learn­ing to use them to improve their train­ing. Polar offers HRV analy­sis capa­bil­i­ty to the retail mar­ket, while Zone Five Soft­ware, Heart­Math, and oth­ers have soft­ware for ana­lyz­ing heart data col­lect­ed from oth­er devices.

Blood Pressure

You don’t need to go to the doctor’s office to mea­sure your blood pres­sure. Indeed, the Amer­i­can Heart Asso­ci­a­tion rec­om­mends home mon­i­tor­ing to those with hyper­ten­sion or who are at risk of devel­op­ing it. The Mayo Clin­ic web­site offers tips for device selec­tion and use.

Blood Glucose

Man Checking Blood Glucose

Like blood pres­sure, peo­ple mon­i­tor their blood glu­cose lev­el on a dai­ly basis to man­age a health issue. Many devices are avail­able. Though you may not have a form of dia­betes, blood sug­ar has an impact on your well-being, and some self-quan­ti­fiers are track­ing it to under­stand its affects. You’ll find inex­pen­sive devices from One Touch, Accu-Chek or oth­er man­u­fac­tur­ers at your cor­ner drugstore.


How are you feel­ing now? Hap­py? Sad? Pen­sive? Stressed? Relaxed? There’s an emoti­con for that. Soft­ware such as Mood­Pan­da make it easy to log how you’re feel­ing at the moment. But cau­tion: Unlike most oth­er attrib­ut­es list­ed here, mea­sure­ment doesn’t pro­duce a num­ber, and inter­pre­ta­tion of the “data” can be dif­fi­cult. Nev­er­the­less, track­ing how you feel can pro­vide insight, if it’s approached carefully.

Track What You Do

Unlike “in-the-moment” body and mind para­me­ters, mea­sur­ing the effect of what you do on your well-being requires track­ing activ­i­ty — or rest from activ­i­ty — over a peri­od of time.


Pedome­ters, which count steps, have been around for a while, but thanks to very low cost accelerom­e­ter chips, light­weight devices are becom­ing avail­able that auto­mat­i­cal­ly detect a range of motions and upload their info to an online data­base. Add a Glob­al Posi­tion­ing Sys­tem (GPS) chip and a satel­lite will help you track the dis­tance and alti­tude climb of your run. Add oth­er sen­sors to detect heart rate, skin tem­per­a­ture, and per­spi­ra­tion and cor­re­late that with your motion to get a com­plete pic­ture of your work­out. Many pop­u­lar devices are on the mar­ket: Fit­Bit, Garmin, Jaw­bone, Nike, Body­Media, Basis and others.


Sleep­ers (that’s most of us) can mea­sure aspects of their sleep to get infor­ma­tion they can use to improve the qual­i­ty of their sleep. Activ­i­ty mon­i­tors can track how long it takes you to fall asleep, how long you sleep, and how much of your sleep time is rest­less. Though sleep researchers would have you sleep in a lab with a num­ber of wires con­nect­ed to your body, you don’t need — and prob­a­bly wouldn’t use — the com­pre­hen­sive bio­elec­tric data avail­able through polysomnog­ra­phy. But easy-to-use retail devices are becom­ing avail­able for use at home. Devices such as Zeo, Sleep­track­er, and Wake­mate break data down into time spent in light, deep and, in some cas­es, REM sleep stages, and are quite ade­quate for self-trackers.


Woman Eating Strawberry

Track­ing what you eat, drink, or smoke takes time and atten­tion but the effort depends great­ly on the detail. You’re going to have to enter some­thing into your com­put­er or smart­phone, but what? Dia­bet­ics and oth­ers who must watch their diet care­ful­ly for health rea­sons have learned to get it down to what’s essen­tial. Food is count­ed as exchange­able serv­ings of car­bo­hy­drate, pro­tein, or fat with equiv­a­lent calo­rie and blood sug­ar impact. Real­ize that count­ing calo­ries alone isn’t enough to see how what you con­sume affects you. The key is to iden­ti­fy what’s impor­tant about your diet and track that with enough detail to achieve your track­ing purpose.

What Will The Numbers Tell Me?

Each of the above would need to be explored in detail before any seri­ous div­ing in. But with this overview, your next ques­tion may be about what you can do with the data. You’re not going to be inter­est­ed very long in mea­sur­ing your­self just to look at the num­bers; you’ll want to use the data to solve a prob­lem or improve some aspect of your life. In our next post, we’ll explore what the data may tell.

Popcorn Meetings


A meet­ing at a glob­al, high-tech com­pa­ny is about to begin. Let’s watch and take notes.

Peo­ple trick­le into the con­fer­ence room, each with a lap­top. A woman punch­es key­pad but­tons on a wall, takes a seat near the front, then con­nects her lap­top to project its screen so oth­ers can see.

Besides you and me, nine oth­ers are present. The screen shows 14 more logged in to the online Live Meet­ing, five of which are in three oth­er U.S. cities, four are in India, and the remain­der are holed up in their respec­tive offices down the hall, down­stairs or down the street.

Please take a note:

Note: With new ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing, peo­ple can meet with­out the need to be phys­i­cal­ly present.

Are you shar­ing?” says a dis­em­bod­ied voice. After a bit of fuss­ing by the meet­ing lead, one of the open appli­ca­tions on the pro­ject­ed screen shows as “shared” while the oth­ers dim. Most in the room are busy typ­ing or read­ing on their own lap­top rather than the pro­ject­ed screen.

The next per­son to speak says, “What DLP sync? Vault is closed to enclo­sure sync cod­ing.” A cou­ple of peo­ple look up while oth­ers stay focused on their own lap­tops. The pro­ject­ed email min­utes of the pre­vi­ous meet­ing say some­thing about DLP sync.

A minute of qui­et click-clacks pass before anoth­er per­son responds. “The DLP vault was re-opened last week,” he says with­out mov­ing his eyes from his laptop.

Time for anoth­er note:

Note: Tech­nol­o­gy has pro­vid­ed the means for peo­ple to do, or attempt to do, sev­er­al things at once. We call this “mul­ti­task­ing.”

As the meet­ing con­tin­ues, the pace accel­er­ates until at least one, and often more than one, con­ver­sa­tion is in progress at a time. Still, while some par­tic­i­pate in the dis­cus­sion, we see sev­er­al oth­ers focus­ing on their lap­tops or smart­phones. Occa­sion­al­ly, one of the lat­ter speak up and engage briefly in the conversation.

Quite a lot is hap­pen­ing at once, and not every­one is actu­al­ly work­ing. There: Some­one just checked a stock price. Bet­ter make anoth­er note:

Note: Sev­er­al mul­ti-thread­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels are avail­able, each vying for atten­tion: talk, email, Web, and cell­phone all com­pet­ing with the meet­ing that’s play­ing out over the con­fer­enc­ing system.

After 45 min­utes, the din has dwin­dled like the last pops of microwave pop­corn. The room is qui­et except for the ever-present click-clack of lap­top key­boards. A full minute pass­es before any­one gets up to leave.

Please take note:

Note: The dis­cus­sion fol­lowed the clas­sic adop­tion-of-a-new-idea pat­tern. Activ­i­ty rose to a peak then dwindled.

Turn back the dial a cou­ple of decades, and meet­ings were dif­fer­ent. With no lap­tops or smart­phones to “dis­tract,” the meet­ing lead had everyone’s atten­tion, except those who fell asleep.

But today ideas com­pet­ed for atten­tion. If some­one ques­tions what’s pre­sent­ed, he or she has means to inves­ti­gate and ques­tion it on the spot.

One more note:

Note: Today’s meet­ing presents a micro­cosm of mod­ern soci­ety, where many things vie for atten … 

Wait a minute. You are tak­ing notes on that thing, aren’t you? Aren’t you?

Hey, you’re not tak­ing notes! You’re play­ing Tetris!

The tech­ni­cal con­tent of this dis­cus­sion is a total fab­ri­ca­tion. Any resem­blance to any­thing real is coincidental.

Digital Jhaaboulii

With three fin­gers and an oppos­able thumb on each hand, the Jhaaboulii chil­dren of plan­et Gliese 302f nev­er need to learn mul­ti­pli­ca­tion tables nor do they ever have trou­ble with arithmetic.

Young Jhaabouli­is learn num­bers by adding rather than by count­ing,” said Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia sophon­tol­o­gist Jung Wei. “They express the num­ber one by touch­ing the right-hand index fin­ger to thumb, two by touch­ing the ring fin­ger to thumb and three by adding both ring and index fin­gers to thumb. Con­tin­u­ing in this man­ner, Jhaabouli­is can express the num­bers to 63 with hand sym­bols. They think ‘add’ rather than ‘count’.”

With the help of Herodotus, a neu­ro­com­put­er Wei wears in his left ear­ring, he has stud­ied Jhaaboulii cul­ture since short­ly after the dis­cov­ery of the aliens’ radio sig­nal in 2069. Wei says that the neurocomputer’s role has been essen­tial. “I doubt if we would have ever detect­ed the sig­nal, much less under­stood it, with­out the com­put­ers,” said Wei. “The com­put­ers not only trans­late the sym­bols, but also inter­pret them.”

Per­haps a fac­tor in the computer’s abil­i­ty to under­stand the Jhaabouli­is is that they think like com­put­ers. Herodotus imaged the fig­ures shown here and explained: “The Jhaaboulii con­cept of num­ber is very much like that of my pre­de­ces­sors, the ear­ly gen­er­a­tions of dig­i­tal com­put­ers. Their num­ber sys­tem is base eight, and the sym­bols for numer­als 0 through 7 direct­ly relate to their hand sym­bols. Each sym­bol con­nects three points rep­re­sent­ing, from right to left, the index, mid­dle and lit­tle fin­ger. A high point rep­re­sents a touch and low point, no touch.”

Jhaaboulii primers use circles to teach number shapes.

Appar­ent­ly, the Jhaaboulii num­ber sys­tem gives their kids a free pass from mul­ti­pli­ca­tion-table lessons.  “Mul­ti­pli­ca­tion is a mat­ter of shift­ing and adding,” said Wei, then Herodotus filled in the details. “Jhaaboulii youth are taught arith­metic con­cepts by rep­re­sent­ing num­bers with a string of cir­cles and dots,” Herodotus said. “Each group of three cor­re­spond to one of the eight numer­al sym­bols. These strings are then manip­u­lat­ed as we would bina­ry num­bers of 0’s and 1’s.  Two num­bers are mul­ti­plied by tak­ing one of the strings and mak­ing a copy shift­ed to the left for each dot in the oth­er. Then the shift­ed copies are added.”

It appears they have no con­cept for ‘count’ sep­a­rate from ‘add’,” said Wei. “They think in terms of algo­rithm from a young age. After learn­ing sim­ple rules, they’re then expect­ed to fig­ure things out.”

The Jhaabouli­is are indeed good at fig­ur­ing things out. After detect­ing stray radio and tele­vi­sion sig­nals from our mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry pro­gram­ming, they pro­ject­ed how our com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy would devel­op, then direct­ed trans­mis­sions to us that would require quan­tum com­put­ers to decode. Since Jhaaboulii knowl­edge of us is at least 82 years out of date, that’s some good fig­ur­ing; the tech­nol­o­gy we’d need to get their sig­nal didn’t exist when they sent it.

Many puz­zles yet remain in the Jhaaboulii sig­nal stream. But, min­gled with their mes­sages to us, are their ques­tions about us. Wei expressed one of them: “With four fin­gers and a thumb on each hand, why not use base-16? Humans could ‘count’ to 255 with their fin­gers.” But Herodotus was quick to say, “That’s exact­ly what some of us no-fin­ger, dig­i­tal earth­lings have been doing for more than a century.”

Get­ting to know the neigh­bors is some­what ham­pered when it takes four decades to send a note next door. At a dis­tance of 41 light years, it may be some time though before we can have a sit-down chat. In the mean­time, a whole lot of dig­i­tal fig­ur­ing is need­ed both here and there to under­stand the decades-old messages.

Why Quantify

Running X-Ray Man

Every year, sev­er­al mil­lion peo­ple pur­chase a bath­room scale and use (or plan to use) it to mon­i­tor their weight. To effect change, you must be able to see the change.

The pen­ny scale was intro­duced to soci­ety in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. By the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, a shop­per could find a scale not far from any giv­en urban cor­ner, drop a pen­ny in it, and see his or her weight. Today, most homes in the Unit­ed States have a scale in a bath­room, and some of them do get used.

Today, tech­nol­o­gy has made it pos­si­ble and prac­ti­cal to track and ana­lyze many aspects of self beyond weight. Body mass index (BMI), heart rate, and oth­er phys­i­cal para­me­ters can be mea­sured and auto­mat­i­cal­ly uploaded to a data­base on a Web serv­er for your fur­ther analy­sis. Your activ­i­ty, the num­ber of calo­ries you’ve burned, how well you’ve slept — all are prac­ti­cal to mon­i­tor by you, yourself.

But, you might ask, why would I want to do that? Why quantify?

When num­bers are report­ed, we tend to believe them. When num­bers are tracked, we can see change and per­haps under­stand its cause. Whether or not the num­bers are com­plete­ly accu­rate, their use can be an effec­tive tool for change. Num­bers can help you change in essen­tial­ly two ways: moti­va­tion and insight.

Get Motivated

As you progress towards a goal, your moti­va­tion to achieve it increas­es. Mar­keters know this as the “goal-gra­di­ent effect,” and it’s why they’ll give you a reward card with one or more box­es already stamped rather than a blank card. Peo­ple tend to look at what’s left to do, rather than what’s already been done, after see­ing that some progress has already been made.

Set small, achiev­able goals to keep motivated.

Get Insight

For the most part, we know what to do if we want to lose weight: eat less and exer­cise. We can track our progress with a bath­room scale, but the num­bers aren’t going to tell much more than we already know.

But life is often more com­pli­cat­ed than that. Train­ing for a marathon? Have trou­ble sleep­ing? Stressed out? Have chron­ic indi­ges­tion? Work­ing on your golf game? Whether it’s a prob­lem to solve or an achieve­ment to attain, under­stand­ing what works and what doesn’t work is essential.

Self-dis­cov­ery isn’t easy, and even when the data is there, some skill and dis­ci­pline is need­ed to gain under­stand­ing. Track­ing isn’t a panacea, but is often the only way to find what’s effec­tive and what isn’t. Tech­nol­o­gy has made this less difficult.

Track and ana­lyze to find what works and doesn’t work.

Get Practical

Unlike the queen in the fairy tale, you don’t check the “mir­ror, mir­ror on the wall” to see “who is the fairest of them all;” you check the mir­ror for a pur­pose: to see if you’re good to go. Like­wise, you track your­self for a pur­pose: to solve a problem.

We all want to find the eas­i­est way to achieve our goals. Quan­ti­fy­ing your­self may or may not be easy and it may or may not help achieve your goal. Before you begin, you need to access what you can do, what can work, and what it will take to suc­ceed. Often there is more than one way to get to a goal.

Quan­ti­fy your­self to achieve a spe­cif­ic goal.

In our next post, we’ll look at the var­i­ous track­ing tech­nolo­gies that are avail­able and how each may be applied to spe­cif­ic problem.


Human Arrested For Driving

SAN DIEGO July 29, 2039 — A Tier­ras­an­ta man was arrest­ed in San Diego today after dri­ving his preg­nant wife to a local hos­pi­tal. The man, Javier Jack­son, had mod­i­fied his vehicle’s robot­ic con­trol to enable man­u­al over­ride, accord­ing to police offi­cer Lind­say McMa­hon. When arrest­ed, Jack­son told Offi­cer McMa­hon that “robots are too damned slow.” Jack­son, who teach­es com­put­er engi­neer­ing at Gross­mont Col­lege, is not eli­gi­ble for vehi­cle oper­a­tor cer­ti­fi­ca­tion under the reg­u­la­tions of California’s 2025 “Safe Roads” legislation.

Evi­dent­ly, Jack­son was able to dri­ve his wife from the Jack­sons’ home in Tier­ras­an­ta to Sharp Mary Birch with­out inci­dent; no acci­dents have been report­ed any­where today in San Diego Coun­ty. Ms. Jack­son gave birth to a healthy baby boy, the Jackson’s third, short­ly after arrival at the hos­pi­tal. When reached for com­ment, Ms. Jack­son said that her hus­band had learned to dri­ve when he was a teen—and dri­ving was legal.

Digital Mobile Vulgus

a crowd

Peo­ple at var­i­ous places around the world, uncon­nect­ed by any­thing oth­er than some com­mon plight in life, have coa­lesced this year, 2011, into crowds with a purpose.

Some meant to acti­vate change, some meant to express dis­con­tent, and some sim­ply to wreak hav­oc. Not every­one has been in agree­ment as to which was which.

In every case, dig­i­tal media was the juice that mobi­lized the mobile vul­gus—“the fick­le com­mon people.”

  • In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and oth­er Arab nations, hun­dreds of thou­sands risked (and some­times lost) their lives to protest the oppres­sion of their regimes. Through dig­i­tal media, the word spread through local soci­eties, to neigh­bor­ing soci­eties and to the world. Regime attempts to throt­tle Inter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tion slowed, but could not stop the process.
  • In Lon­don, after a fatal shoot­ing by police on August 4th, an ini­tial­ly peace­ful protest turned to riot, loot­ing and arson, the call to action spread via Black­ber­ry Mes­sen­ger Ser­vice (BBM).
  • In the Unit­ed States, the role of dig­i­tal media in the Occu­py Wall Street move­ment was the top­ic of New York’s City Hall News series on dig­i­tal communications.

Is there any rea­son to doubt The Wis­dom of Crowds? In the book of that title pub­lished in 2004, author James Surowiec­ki argues that the col­lec­tive infor­ma­tion of groups leads to bet­ter deci­sion mak­ing than any per­son alone could achieve. Of course, most of us would say, democ­ra­cy pro­duces a more vital econ­o­my than any dictatorship.

But Surowiec­ki was keen to point out that crowds are wise by virtue of the col­lec­tive intel­le­gence of many inde­pen­dent thinkers. Diver­si­ty of expe­ri­ence and opin­ions are cruicial.

Mobs are some­thing dif­fer­ent. From bub­ble to lynch, mobs have demon­strat­ed their capac­i­ty for irra­tional behav­ior. When peo­ple are too-strong­ly con­nect­ed, when social pres­sure is strong, the psy­chol­o­gy of crowds is often any­thing but wise.

So what has dig­i­tal media wrought? Wise crowds or irra­tional mobs?

Or both?


  1., Febrary 23, 2011, “The Arab Spring’s Cas­cad­ing Effects
  2. The Guardian, August 8, 2011, “Lon­don riots: how Black­Ber­ry Mes­sen­ger played a key role.
  3. Metro Focus, Octo­ber 21, 2011, “Occu­py Wall Street’s Tips on Dig­i­tal Media, Orga­niz­ing

Chip-Powered Pink Bus Saves Lives

Pink Party Bus

Social media are becom­ing life­lines for those with life-chang­ing diseases.

Con­sid­er Cindy’s sto­ry. Her mam­mo­grams had been clear since breast can­cer treat­ment two years pre­vi­ous­ly, yet she was unbear­ably anx­ious as the time for the next check­up arrived. So she went online and asked her sis­ters to come with her to the appointment.

Enough of them came to fill a large pink bus. One sis­ter brought brown­ies. Anoth­er a bot­tle of wine. There were argu­ments over who got to ride in front, who got a seat by the win­dow and who got to dri­ve. One had to run to catch the bus at the last minute. Some­where a vod­ka Prozac mocha appeared.

Aside from being crowd­ed, bois­ter­ous and pink, the par­ty bus that accom­pa­nied Cindy to her appoint­ment had a dis­tinc­tive qual­i­ty: it was vir­tu­al, exist­ing only in the imag­i­na­tion of its rid­ers and on the Web pages of Can­cer Sur­vivors Net­work, a forum spon­sored by the Amer­i­can Can­cer Society.

Strong social sup­port fol­low­ing a diag­no­sis of can­cer is cru­cial. The first year is the most crit­i­cal, accord­ing to a recent study by the Van­der­bilt-Ingram Can­cer Cen­ter and the Shang­hai Insti­tute of Pre­ven­tive Med­i­cine, lead by Pro­fes­sor Meira Epplein at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­si­ty. The study fol­lowed the progress of more than 2,200 women with breast can­cer over the course of sev­er­al years. Those with “a mean­ing­ful emo­tion­al sup­port net­work” were much more like­ly to sur­vive and less like­ly to have a recur­rence, Epplein reported.

The need for emo­tion­al sup­port has long been expressed by those with can­cer. How­ev­er, those who care for them haven’t always known how best to pro­vide it. Close friends and fam­i­ly often “help” by express­ing opti­mism and play down the threat or avoid the top­ic alto­geth­er while the one with can­cer often longs to talk about wor­ries and fears in a frank manner.

Rec­og­niz­ing this dis­con­nect, health care providers have orga­nized can­cer sup­port groups in which can­cer patients could talk with oth­er can­cer patients about their ill­ness. In these peer groups, patients could share their thoughts with oth­ers who under­stood what it meant to cope with can­cer. But stud­ies of the effec­tive­ness of peer sup­port groups con­duct­ed in the late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry were not able to show that these groups made a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in the long-term sur­vival rate for cancer.

Then came the Inter­net and social media. Increas­ing­ly, peo­ple are going online when can­cer is first discovered.

Mar­sha couldn’t sleep while she wait­ed for the results of her biop­sy in June of 2010.  After read­ing all she could find and yet want­i­ng to know how oth­ers coped, she entered “breast lump” and “diag­nosed with can­cer in my 30s” in an Inter­net search box and found Can­cer Sur­vivors Net­work. “In my heart I knew it was can­cer,” she said. “What I want­ed to know was real life stories.”

Those who are online have a trump card,” wrote Susan­nah Fox, asso­ciate direc­tor of the Pew Research Cen­ter. “They have each oth­er. … They unearth nuggets of infor­ma­tion. They blog. They par­tic­i­pate in online dis­cus­sions. And they just keep going.” One fourth of those with a chron­ic con­di­tion that have access to the Inter­net have used it to find oth­ers with sim­i­lar health prob­lems, accord­ing to a 2010 sur­vey by the Pew Inter­net and Amer­i­can Life Project.

My CSN sisters…understand how it is to live every day as if it’s your last,” Mar­sha said. “They under­stand liv­ing with intent. They also under­stand liv­ing with the con­stant of can­cer loom­ing over your shoul­der. Not dwelling on it, but know­ing it is always there.”

Can­cer Sur­vivors Net­work lists more than 133,000 mem­bers, most of whom have been touched by either breast or col­orec­tal can­cer. Com­bined, they have made a half-mil­lion posts since the dis­cus­sion board was formed in 2000. Many in CSN’s can­cer forum also par­tic­i­pate in can­cer groups on oth­er social net­works that focus on can­cer sur­vivors. The forums of, a non-prof­it orga­nized in 2000 by oncol­o­gist Dr. Maris­sa Weiss, receive more than 1,400 posts dai­ly from its 96,000-strong mem­ber­ship. Those of Susan G. Komen for the Cure are active with more than 22,000 mem­bers. Face­book lists hun­dreds of can­cer sup­port groups, some with more than 10,000 members.

Fear on the can­cer boards is min­gled with life. A CSN breast-can­cer-board neo­phyte posts, “I’m new here and won­der what is the pink bus?” Some­one responds to say that it’s the way they have of sup­port­ing each oth­er when they “have tests, scans and the like,” then explains that “every­one has their spe­cial­ty: brown­ies, wine, fresh fruit…” Anoth­er says that “it’s a mag­ic ride” and that brown­ies and the like “help with the mag­ic, but the real mag­ic is when all the kin­dred spir­its get togeth­er to car­ry a per­son in dis­tress to the next stop on the journey.”

With­in the com­mu­ni­ty of sup­port, the reminders of “the beast” are ever present. When can­cer recurs in some­one or when some­one dies, many board sis­ters feel the impact deeply. “CSN, though a life saver to me, has also brought me pain I wish I nev­er knew,” a long-time mem­ber said. “Because one can become ill quick­ly, some sim­ply drop out of sight with lit­tle clue as to what hap­pened. Some­times, a spouse or oth­er fam­i­ly mem­ber will post in the member’s name to let the kin­dred know how the patient is doing. Many share phone num­bers and oth­er per­son­al details with some­one on the board to pro­vide a point of contact—just in case.”

Though com­mu­ni­cat­ed in encod­ed Inter­net-Pro­to­col pack­ets sent from chip-to-chip over wires, radio waves and fibre optics, the emo­tion­al con­nec­tions between those afflict­ed with chron­ic dis­ease can run deep.

I don’t know how it hap­pens,” one said, “but you can just feel the hug com­ing out of the computer.”

Names have been changed to pre­serve the pri­va­cy of these individuals.

2011: A Space (Chip) Odyssey


Since the launch of Sput­nik 1 in 1957, which weighed in at 84 kilo­grams, satel­lites have been get­ting big­ger and heav­ier. But this May, three chip-size satel­lites went up with the final launch of the Space Shut­tle Endeav­or, hint­ing that the explo­ration of the cos­mos may belong to the small­er and lighter.

In Stan­ley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a large and ancient mono­lith is dis­cov­ered on the moon and moti­vates a voy­age to Jupiter, where pro­tag­o­nist Dr. David Bow­man finds anoth­er. His last words: “My God, it’s full of stars!”

That same year and with much less fan­fare, anoth­er mono­lith was intro­duced by Fairchild Semi­con­duc­tor: a cir­cuit inte­grat­ed on a small chip of sil­i­con designed using Fairchild’s new, low-sodi­um sil­i­con-gate tech­nol­o­gy. The descen­dants of that chip may shape the true gate­way to the stars.

Already, in 1968, semi­con­duc­tor mono­liths had been instru­men­tal in our explo­ration of the cos­mos. Indeed, with­out them there would have been no space pro­gram. In Jour­ney to the Moon: The His­to­ry of the Apol­lo Guid­ance Com­put­er, Eldon Hall reports that, in the ear­ly 1960s, NASA was the largest con­sumer of inte­grat­ed cir­cuits. The lunar astro­nauts relied upon two Apol­lo Guid­ance Com­put­ers to be in the right place at the right time, one in the com­mand mod­ule and the oth­er in the lan­der. Each com­put­er was housed in a met­al box about a cubic foot in size and con­tained more than 2000 inte­grat­ed cir­cuits. These chips relied on the bipo­lar-tran­sis­tor tech­nol­o­gy invent­ed at Bell Labs in 1949 and con­tained just a few tran­sis­tors each. The design was sim­ple but robust–it’s not so easy to sum­mon a ser­vice call a quar­ter of a mil­lion miles from home.

Though Fairchild’s 1968 chip was a giant step for­ward, it wasn’t much by today’s stan­dards. Its tran­sis­tor count could still actu­al­ly be count­ed, and it burned more pow­er than a hun­dred-mil­lion-tran­sis­tor chip in cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy. Yet its sil­i­con-gate tech­nol­o­gy enabled the intro­duc­tion of the first micro­proces­sor in 1971, the Intel 4004, and the bil­lions of mul­ti­mil­lion-tran­sis­tor chips in use today.

The com­plex­i­ty of chips has grown expo­nen­tial­ly since the 1960s, a trend that had already been not­ed by Intel founder Gor­don Moore in 1965. He claimed that chip com­plex­i­ty had “increased at a rate of rough­ly a fac­tor of two per year.” Ten years lat­er, when he refined his rough esti­mate to every *two* years, this obser­va­tion had become known as “Moore’s Law.” The trend has since con­tin­ued unabated.

As tran­sis­tor counts have fol­lowed Moore’s pre­dic­tion, the num­ber of chips in orbit has also gone sky high. About 6500 earth-orbit satel­lites have been launched, accord­ing to the online cat­a­log main­tained by CelesTrak. Though most of them have either decayed or become inac­tive, each with a large num­ber of inte­grat­ed cir­cuits and each of those with a much larg­er num­ber of transistors.

Though space­craft have become big, the micro­elec­tron­ic trend to tinier and tinier hasn’t gone with­out notice. In the last ten years, dozens of uni­ver­si­ties and a few high schools have crammed micro-tech­nol­o­gy-based satel­lite projects into stan­dard­ized, one-kilo­gram, 10-cm-on-a-side Cube­Sats. The cost is with­in many schools bud­gets: less than $100,000.

The project launched with the Endeav­or, though, takes satel­lite scale-down to a new lev­el and a new par­a­digm. With it, the indus­try acronym SoC for “sys­tem-on-chip” takes a new mean­ing: “space­ship-on-chip.” The project’s spon­sor, a team at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, call them “Sprites.”

They envi­sion satel­lites weigh­ing no more than a few mil­ligrams with every­thing need­ed inte­grat­ed on one chip. Micro­proces­sors would pro­vide con­trol, a radio for com­mu­ni­ca­tion, solar cells for pow­er and a thin-film bat­tery or super­ca­pac­i­tor to store it, and a “lab-on-a-chip” to col­lect data. They could be pro­duced cheap­ly and in large quan­ti­ties. With thou­sands placed in orbit around the sun, dropped onto the sands of Mars or float­ed in the soup of Titan’s atmos­phere, only a frac­tion would need to work to pro­vide infor­ma­tion that couldn’t eas­i­ly be obtained any oth­er way.

As Moore pre­dict­ed for earth­bound cir­cuits, space-chips will only become small­er, more com­plex and more capa­ble. Will they ven­ture to the stars before us?

Though Voy­ager-1 has already trav­eled to inter­stel­lar space, it will be 76,000 years before it’s gone the dis­tance to our near­est stel­lar neigh­bor, about four light-years away. Most of us are not that patient. How fea­si­ble would it be to accel­er­ate a one-kilo­gram star­ship to half the speed of light? A lot. All the ener­gy of a 4 giga­ton TNT-equiv­a­lent hydro­gen bomb would be needed.

But it’s not too crazy to think of reach­ing the stars with the next gen­er­a­tion of space chips, or the one after that.

Silicon Please, and Hold the Salt

Who would have thought that a lit­tle elec­tric switch made of sil­i­con would be more pow­er­ful than a loco­mo­tive made of steel?

Per­haps Julius Lilien­feld did when he came up with the idea in the 1920s, but they were so hard to make. The idea lan­guished until some peo­ple at Bell Labs found a dif­fer­ent way to make such a switch in 1949. The Bell Labs device became known as the bipo­lar tran­sis­tor, not because it is man­i­cal­ly depressed (it isn’t), but because it uses the inter­play between two dif­fer­ent­ly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed regions of a semi­con­duct­ing crys­tal to make the switch. (We’ll talk about art­ful­ly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed semi­con­duc­tors such as sil­i­con some oth­er day. Suf­fice it say that one way is called “p-type” and the oth­er is “n-type.”)

Lilienfeld’s device also used the two dif­fer­ent­ly doped regions of a semi­con­duc­tor, but added a met­al-oxide-semi­con­duc­tor (MOS) sand­wich to be used to turn the thing on and off. How­ev­er that was sup­posed to work, the trou­ble was that some­times it just wouldn’t. Bell Lab’s device, though, did, and dur­ing the 1950s the U.S. mil­i­tary bought a bunch of them.

In 1958, Jack Kil­by at Texas Instru­ments thought some inter­est­ing things could be done if a bunch of the new, semi­con­duc­tor switch­es could be put on a sin­gle piece of sil­i­con and wired to make a cir­cuit. The con­cept of a mono­lith­ic inte­grat­ed cir­cuit, an IC, was born.

Since they could be made reli­ably, the first ICs were made with bipo­lar tran­sis­tors. But engi­neers saw that MOS tran­sis­tors could be made small­er and cheap­er, which would make for even more inter­est­ing ICs. In the mid 1960s, engi­neers at Fairchild Semi­con­du­tor solved the puz­zle: The cul­prit was salt.

Sodi­um ions are ubiq­ui­tous in com­mon envi­ron­ments and are very bad news if you want to con­trol your sil­i­con switch with a met­al-oxide-semi­con­duc­tor stack-up. To make them, you’ll need a clean room. A very clean room. Think bun­ny suits, deion­ized water, and puri­fied air: the fac­to­ry envi­ron­ment of the twen­ty-first century.

A typ­i­cal U.S. house­hold today holds hun­dreds of inte­grat­ed cir­cuits, and each of those could con­tain as many as a bil­lion (yes, a bil­lion) MOS tran­sis­tors. There are more tran­sis­tors now in use than there are pen­nies in the U.S. nation­al debt. What inter­est­ing things are they doing and where are we head­ed with this? Chip101 is set to explore these questions.