August 2011


I bought Sleep Cycle for my iPod touch because it sounded right up my alley. It uses the accelerometer in i-devices to measure how much you move while asleep to track your sleep cycles. Then it wakes you up when you will be most alert. How cool is that?

Well, it is pretty cool, but not because it tracks your sleep cycles, or because it wakes you up alert. First of all, sleep cycles are defined by brainwave patterns, not by movement. Perhaps it’s a decent analog–I’ve read that claim–but the charts that Sleep Cycle produces from my nights of sleep don’t look much like the examples of EEG readouts of sleepers.

Where in this graph was I dreaming? It looks like I fell asleep and woke up pretty abruptly, and was awake for a short period just after 6 am, but that’s all I can tell. I can also say that the app does not always catch it when you wake up. I’ve gotten out of bed to pee and not made a spike out of the sleep zone.

It is also not really useful for its primary purpose–to wake you up during the period that you will feel most rested. You set an alarm for the latest you want to wake up, and then a period of time during which it would be acceptable to wake up. The alarm is supposed to go off at the point in that period when you are moving enough to indicate that you are in shallow sleep. Supposedly, if it waited longer and let you go back into deep sleep, you would wake up groggy because of it.

Perhaps it’s just me, and perhaps it’s just that I’ve been in grad school, but I found that I never preferred to be woken up before I really needed to be up. I did not notice any benefit from being woken up when I started to move instead of when I had just enough time to get ready for school. Luckily, you can set it for “normal alarm clock mode” with no “wake-up phase.”

Still, Sleep Cycle is cool for a couple of reasons. First, It tracks how much time I give myself for sleeping. It starts counting when you set the alarm at night and stops when you wake up and keeps track. That’s how I know, for example, that I gave myself an average of 8 hours and 35 minutes to sleep in for the 155 nights before Reanna moved to Eugene. (It doesn’t work with two people in bed.) (And that included my last 125 days of grad school–not too bad!) That means I averaged fairly close to eight hours of sleep a night, with an estimated average sleep latency of 30 minutes. And that brings me to the coolest part.

As a chronic, intermittent insomniac, I’ve always wanted to know how long it actually takes me to get to sleep. Now I have a pretty good idea, thanks to Sleep Cycle. Many of my graphs look something like this:

I started trying to sleep just after 1 AM and drifted off around 1:45. I probably would have told you that I lay awake for at least an hour. Here’s another:

That looks like about an hour of insomnia. Don’t be fooled by the little initial drop–that was me lying very still, trying to sleep, before starting to toss and turn.

To finish off, here are a few other graphs, just so you can see some of the variety:

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I became aware of Google’s Ngram Viewer a few days ago when Reanna read me the essay “Isn’t the word “feminism” itself gender-biased?” The author used this image:

What? You can do that? Yes, you can, apparently. You can search the frequency of words in all of the books Google has digitized

This is really fun, but be aware that you can sink a lot of time into it. Here are a few randomy ngrams I made. Sorry, but you might have to zoom in to see the text. That’s control-plus for PCs and command-plus for Macs.

In his new lecture for the Long Now Foundation, Geoffrey West asserts that part of the problem humans face is that we tend not to understand exponential growth. An economy growing at a miserable 2%, for example, is still growing exponentially. And economic growth is still largely a measure of the acceleration of entropy–how much faster are we turning resources into pollution. He advises figuring out ways that periods of slow or no growth OK, because it will have to be.

Exponential growth really is counterintuitive. Here’s the way he describes it:

Imagine you are going to grow a test tube of a bacteria, starting with one bacterium at 8 AM and ending with a full test tube precisely at noon. The bacteria grow by doubling–a kind of exponential growth–each second. So at the end of one second we have two, after two seconds we have four, after three seconds we have eight, and so on. That being the case, at what time will the test tube be one-half full?

Right. Precisely one second before noon. And two seconds before noon it’s a quarter full. Three seconds is an eighth, four seconds a sixteenth. At 11:59.55 AM, the tube is only 1/32 full. Imagine being a bacterium in the tube at five seconds to noon. It would seem more crowded than usual, but look at all that space to go, and we’ve been doubling like this for almost four hours! There may be a problem in the next few days, but certainly not in the next few seconds–exponential growth is probably also counterintuitive for bacteria.

How should I stand if I want to stand in good posture? The answer I got from many, many sources–books, clips, websites, people–was some version of this: Tuck your tailbone under a little, imagine your head is being lifted, then hike your shoulders up a little, roll them back, then drop them down all the way in that back position. There are some minor variations out there, and some bigger ones–Esther Gokhale, for example, my mom’s favorite posture guru, is against tucking pelvis forward. “Ducky butt, not tucky butt!”

It was a bit of a revelation when my physical therapist, Shannon, gave me my first set of personalized instructions on my posture. I am to roll my shoulders up and back, but not down! I said “You are the only person who has ever given me that instruction. Why shouldn’t I drop my shoulders down as far as they go?” She explained, using a skeleton hanging in her office, how, while that’s true for many people, they way my shoulder blades and spine where out of whack, and because of which muscles are too long and too short from misuse, I need to bring my shoulders up. And I need to bring my ears in line with my shoulder joints. And I can tell the proper tilt of my pelvis based on what gives me the most height. Try it–reach up and move your pelvis and see what position lets you reach the highest. That’s the position for you.

After thinking about it, it seems obvious. Why would anyone think they could give me effective advice about my body without interacting with my body?

As I approach it, the exact day I enter middle age has become more salient. Reanna routinely refers to people in their late 30s as “middle aged” and I feel taken aback. Since I’ve been thinking about such things, I’ve thought of the 30s, at least, as just plain old “adult.”

I am 39, a couple of months from my 40th birthday. When do I hit middle age?

Ah, that’s what I thought. I turn middle-aged at the end of this September.

Funny, the same website gives five more years, just by adding a “d.”

  • Middle age is the period of age beyond young adulthood but before the onset of old age. Various attempts have been made to define this age, which is around the third quarter of the average life span of human beings.  – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_age

I first misread this one as “middle third,” somehow, which liked–very intuitive. For men in the US like myself, however, whose average lifespan is 75.6 years, it places middle age between 25 and 50 years old. That means I’ve been middle aged since 1996. And that Reanna, as a Canadian woman with an average lifespan of 82.9 years, has been middle-aged since six months after her 27th birthday.

As my friend Julian pointed out, though, it actually says the third quarter: For men in the US from about 37.8 until about 57.7. It’s less intuitive for me, but lines up better with what people seem to mean by middle age.

I like that one as well. It may be the most accurate. Or perhaps this one:

  • middle age – (1) when every person you meet is only a composite of other people whom you have met. (2) a time when you’ll do anything to feel better, except give up what’s hurting you. (3) later than you think and sooner than you expect. (4) when a narrow waist and a broad mind begin to change places. – www.theabsolute.net/minefield/tmdict.html

I am in a long, slow recovery from a sacroiliac joint sprain. I’ve just started being able to do more exercise than mild physiotherapy exercises, after almost nine months. I have to be careful, but I can do it. I am in the worst shape of my life, and generally I dislike it. The one nice thing, though, is how little I have to work to reach an aerobic heart rate.

In my normal shape, for example, bicycling is not a good choice for an aerobic workout. I have to push uncomfortably hard just to get to my minimum, low-level aerobic heart rate. [Which is somewhere around 108 beats per minute–60% of an estimated maximum of 180, since I can’t yet push hard enough to discover what my actual max is.] Now I can hop on my bike and hit an aerobic zone within a minute of riding gently. Pretty nice!

I am piloting a new project this year at Not Back to School Camp called “On Becoming a Man.” I thought it would be a salient topic for many of the 13-18 year old males at camp. This is how I described it for campers looking for a project at camp:

“This project is for campers who are interested in becoming a man. It will include exploring the issues of what it means to be a man, the difference between manhood and boyhood, and the freedoms and responsibilities of manhood. Each participant will be supported in coming to a personal definition of manhood and, if they so decide, design a ritual entry into manhood.”

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of manhood a lot for many years, so I feel prepared for that part of the project. I am least prepared for the part where we design a coming of age ritual for each camper who chooses to have one. I’m doing some reading on it (Imber-Black and Roberts Rituals For Our Times) but not having had a coming of age ritual myself, I have next to no concrete examples. The gom jabbar ritual from Dune springs to mind, but I don’t have a poison needle or a pain box. (Plus I don’t think the NBTSC consent forms cover the possibility of death by poison needle!)

Did you have or have you witnessed a great coming of age ritual? Why was it great? Any horror stories? Thanks!

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