Data Motivates

Wired's cover story this month is about feedback loops. The open the story by talking about how those trailers you sometimes see parked on the side of the road that tell you your speed are one of the most effective ways to actually get drivers to slow down.

In essence, people make changes to their behavior when they have more information about it.  The mind gets into ruts, and data provides the outside perspective that allows us to make the small changes we need to make to improve our lives.  I may be mangling the thesis a bit since it has been a couple weeks since I read the article, but it is worth checking out in full.

This is one of my favorite passages:

The true power of feedback loops is not to control people but to give them control. It’s like the difference between a speed trap and a speed feedback sign—one is a game of gotcha, the other is a gentle reminder of the rules of the road. The ideal feedback loop gives us an emotional connection to a rational goal.

And today, their promise couldn’t be greater. The intransigence of human behavior has emerged as the root of most of the world’s biggest challenges. [emphasis added] Witness the rise in obesity, the persistence of smoking, the soaring number of people who have one or more chronic diseases. Consider our problems with carbon emissions, where managing personal energy consumption could be the difference between a climate under control and one beyond help. And feedback loops aren’t just about solving problems. They could create opportunities. Feedback loops can improve how companies motivate and empower their employees, allowing workers to monitor their own productivity and set their own schedules. They could lead to lower consumption of precious resources and more productive use of what we do consume. They could allow people to set and achieve better-defined, more ambitious goals and curb destructive behaviors, replacing them with positive actions. Used in organizations or communities, they can help groups work together to take on more daunting challenges. In short, the feedback loop is an age-old strategy revitalized by state-of-the-art technology. As such, it is perhaps the most promising tool for behavioral change to have come along in decades.


I've talked about components of feedback loops before, but not directly.  Most recently, I talked about the Fitbit.  A while ago, I wrote about the Wii Fit.  These are all tools that can help with weight loss by providing that data I need to make better decisions.  In the case of the Fitbit, it's shown I don't walk as much as I thought I did. In the case of the Wii Fit, the fact that it gave me scores at a minute level allowed me to make minor adjustments.

These benchmarks can provide a small, frequent, daily update of what I do.  To change the big things, I don't have to change the big thing.  It's about changing those little things.  Do enough of the little thing consistently well, and that results in the big change.

These other items provide the feedback necessary for the loop discussed in the article.

As sensors and mobile technology get smaller and ubiquitous, I wonder what kind of inputs to the feedback loop I'll be seeing in the future.

How do feedback loops and personal data impact your life?


Movie Review 20: Mr. Popper's Penguins

It would be hard to find a movie more different from Norwegian Wood than Mr. Popper's Penguins.

In this Jim Carey, family friendly movie, Carey plays a real estate developer (said in my best movie preview voice) who learns an important less about being human from a flock of silly birds.

Mr. Popper's Penguins

The movie is good for what it is. I had fun watching it.  Don't go to it expecting fine cinema; go to it expecting to see some fun hijinks, featuring the adventures of Captain, Stinky, Loudy, Bitey, Lovey, and Nimrod. They are the 6 adorable CG penguins that are tailor made of merchandising.

There are very few surprises in the movie; it's fairly cliched.  It starts wacky, becomes touching, moves to sad and tragic, and finally becomes happy and redeeming. There are some scary moments, and some really sad moments, but it's pretty easy to see what's coming next.

The CG is pretty good.  The penguins look realistic enough doing things that only vaguely penguin-related; it's not the graphics that give them away as fake birds.  If you can suspend disbelief over the penguins actions, then the computer effects will cause no problem.

If you like anthropomorphising penguins and want a cute, fun movie, Mr. Poppers Penguins is worth the hour and a half.  It has things for kids and things for adults.  Know what you're in for and enjoy the movie.


New Toy: The FitBit

A couple weeks ago I was in the San Francisco airport waiting for a flight to San Diego.  Then I stumbled across a machine of pure evil -- designed to suck more money from my pockets than the tightest slot machine in all of Nevada.  It was a Best Buy vending machine.

Have you seen these things? They are large vending machines that sell everything from $20 headphones to $300 cameras.  You simply pop in your credit card and watch as the cool looking machine grabs your new shiny thing and then presents it to you.  You want to spend more money just so this thing will keep bringing you electronics. Sure, it doesn't get as much traffic as the candy machine around the corner, but that machine isn't charging you $375 for a snickers bar, either.  

Of course the bright-shiny drew me in.  I scanned the shelves and then I saw the Fit Bit. I've thought about getting one of these for awhile.  I believe I first learned about it as Jason Calacanis extolled its praises during an episode of This Week in Tech.

The Fitbit is a fancy pedometer that ties in to a significant web presence.  It's very small and clips to my waist band as I walk through my day.  When I stop to recharge it, it uploads my data to the web.  It also comes with a wrist band so you can wear it at night.  Turn on sleep mode and it will track how long and how well you sleep.

It's incredibly dorky, quite a bit over-priced, and still pretty awesome.

I've learned a few things since I got it:
  • I rarely walk 10,000 steps a day like I should
  • I walk even less than I thought in a trade show booth.
  • I have very high-quality sleep on those rare occasions when I actually do sleep.

As I pretend to work on getting into better shape, the Fitbit gives my one of the most important things to drive towards success. It gives me data.  It gives me number.  It helps me be aware of what I am actually doing (or not doing) so that I can take action as appropriate. And once again, Data sames the day.

In the future I hope to do better at hitting 10,000 steps a day. And hopefully many of those will be steps away from the electronics vending machine.  Vending machines for electronics goods will only succeed in pushing my retirement age back to 132. Damn shiny, awesome things.