I love data

I usually think of myself as a liberal arts kinda girl — all about poetry and language and music and history. But back in high school, I took the ASVAB (the military’s aptitude test) in order to get out of class and (this is the real reason) because I always liked taking standardized tests. (I know! I’m sorry!). Anyway, the results of this test weren’t wildly surprising except one: I aced the code-breaking section. According to the military and my fuzzy 15 year old memory, I was unusually good at translating one list to another. It indicated that I might be a capable computer programmer. I scoffed.

And here I am, a computer programmer. Go figure. I guess what I’m saying is that my image of myself as a words only person is just that: an image. I actually do have this well of unappreciated ability in the less subjective. One of the places this shows up most is in data sets.

I just cannot resist real numbers. If it can be measured, it makes me happy. For example, as you may recall, I carefully measured and calculated my milk production while pumping at work, doing my best to note and avoid problems with my data set. Why? Um, because data is cool? And of course, halfway through you think of other data you should’ve collected (time spent pumping, quality of audio book being listened to, frigidity of server room and impact on milk production).

So for Christmas my brother bought me a Wii fit. It plays exactly into my weakness. Oh, the Wii throws off fantastic data! It has charts and graphs. How much of the time I spent in my workout was done using strength training exercises? How consistent have I been? How many calories did I burn doing X activity? What is my BMI, with a precision of 2. Love! Love love! Data! It gets even better for me, because I find data highly motivational. Give me a measurable objective and watch me make it and then exceed it by a little bit because, um, that’s just how I roll. So fantastic, right?

Well…. there’s just one problem. Let’s say I have half an hour to workout (aka: a miracle has occurred). Which activity is likely to produce the best fitness results: Wii fit, or a half hour fitness workout (I have a Bollywood dance workout DVR’d I’m dying to try)? Chances are the non-Wii workout will get my heart rate higher longer. But! But but! It won’t provide me with the delicious, delicious data I crave. I’ll have to go by estimates and feelings! Bah!

Exercise isn’t the only place where I face this conflict between the measurable and the likely more effective. This happens all the time in food. For example, which one of these is probably all-over better for you: the delicious turkey-burgers my husband made for dinner last night, or a frozen Healthy Choice dinner? Right. Homemade food from actual ingredients has numerous benefits over prepackaged “food” products – not the least of which is taste. Now, which one of these is easily quantified? That would be the prepackaged one, of course. On the other hand, this “from scratch” food may have nutritional surprises. I’m pretty sure that the turkey-burgers were pretty healthy, but what about the chili that I make about once every two weeks? I think it’s pretty decent nutritionally, but I could be wrong.

So I can rigorously and accurately count calories, or I can make my food from scratch.

The last time I set about losing baby-weight, I accomplished it through rigorous calorie counting in both intake and output. I believe that I switched the way I ate from a mostly home cooked to more prepared. That’s harder now, because there are more people eating the food we cook. I don’t think I’m willing to do that again. (Also, the site I used for calorie counting is still stuck in Web 1.0 and has a painful interface. Oh, for an iPhone with a food and exercise log app!) It will be interesting to see whether I can pull this off: reduce calories and exercise regularly without constant data streams and numbers. So motivational do I find numbers, I’m actually not entirely sure I can.

What about you? Do you love data or find it irrelevant or constrictive? What pointless data sets do you obsessively maintain? What are other circumstances are there conflicts between an optimal outcome and a measurable outcome? Which one do you pick when they are in conflict: optimal or measurable?

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Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

9 thoughts on “I love data”

  1. Actually, words are just a set of symbols that have been developed through culture and society over time, so they can be transferred and substituted, and in some ways they can be treated as data.

    Between college and my 30s, I’ve gained maybe 20 pounds (and that’s without baby making). I think weight gain as you move out of your 20s is natural and hard to fight against. But, I was a little concerned, so I decided to investigate my eating and exercise habits. I tried calorie counting, (I used the LiveStrong site, which has a greater variety of foods listed, and also lists from scratch recipes). One thing to keep in mind is that all calorie counts are to some degree inaccurate because organic matter always varies in its makeup according to the conditions it grew in.

    Calorie counting actually made me a bit neurotic about food. I became too fixated on reducing my count, even at the price of remaining hungry. Now, I will count calories for a week here and there, just to see how I’m eating. But this is one case in which a constant stream of data is counterproductive for me. Data can tell you lots of things, but it can’t tell you how you actually feel.

    So, I gave up on the counting, and just focused on getting some kind of daily exercise, a balanced diet, and paying attention to my internal hungry/full cues and what my body tells me it wants to eat.


    1. I agree that it begins to be harder to lose weight as we enter our (ahem) fourth decade. I also know that if I don’t lose the weight now(ish), it will likely stay with me for the rest of my life, wearing on my joints and waistline.

      When I took off 20 pounds with Grey (which stayed off until I got pregnant again), it was through being hungry for about two months. I cut my calories very significantly — to about 1600 calories a day — and added significant exercise. I think that normally, I do a good job of eating a balanced diet and paying attention to internal cues. That just doesn’t seem to be enough. Once I lose the weight, though, my “normal” diet and exercise seem to be fine for maintaining weight.


  2. I, too, love data. In late 2008 when I was suffering from those electric-shock pains in my brain (SPOILER: I’m fine!) my doctor was FLOORED when I came to my first appointment with graphs showing how many I had per day, my activity level that day, stress level, etc. Awesome.


  3. ASVAB – Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery

    I hate having to think about what I’m eating. I hate pathologizing food. If I want to lose weight, I increase my exercise, but change almost nothing about how I eat. I may go for water after the first glass of milk, but that’s about it.

    But then, I have a less fabulous wardrobe to maintain 😉

    I do need to get back to exercise other than walking, though. Pushups make my arms look great, and I aspire to sleevelessness this summer.


    1. Yeah, I know a lot of people dislike even discussions of dieting. I also know that dieting and exercise doesn’t work for plenty of people. Furthermore, I firmly believe that there is no moral value to what we eat or how we look.

      I also know that I would like to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight and maintain that. I know that last time I attempted this, careful monitoring of my caloric intake and significantly increased exercise did the trick, where attempts to “eat more carefully” and “exercise more” did nothing. We all have different goals and different ways of accomplishing them!


  4. Personally, I am a map sort of person. In Pakistan, I am beautiful. Well fed. Pampered. In Zaire — que to a bien gros. Yes, well!

    Every time I reduce weight by changing food, my body grows accustomed and the weight comes back on. It is exercise that I need. And then, I think we have a standard body weight that our bodies constantly work for — against our will!


  5. Definitely a data girl (even though I majored in communications in college, NOT statistics). I counted calories for about 8 months last year to lose 12 pounds (yeah, I obviously COUNTED better than I actually CUT calories), but eventually I got to my goal weight. And when I no longer had to enter every radish and fake bacon bit, I felt sort of … lost.

    I’m also obsessed with tracking volume on the treadmill and my Garmin. I would wear my Garmin when I was walking the dog! And I resisted walking indoors (like in a mall) because I couldn’t track my distance.

    I should be counting my blessings, perhaps, instead of my mileage.


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