Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Quantification of the Self, and Eggplant Curry

I was given a FitBit, courtesy of Best Buy, for running the BlogHer 5K this year.  Lest you call me a hypocrite, let me be clear: I would have run the 5K even without the promise of swag. I was going to get out for some exercise that morning anyway, and put my re-sprained ankle to its first test.  But the FitBit did make getting out of bed at 5:30 a little easier.  And I've been wearing it ever since.  Somewhere, the leadership team of FitBit (which, by the way, has only one woman on it) is rubbing their hands together, cackling, "EXcellent."

True confessions: this isn't the first time I've owned one.  My first FitBit is probably buried somewhere in the Technology Drawer (which is a fancy name for the tangled mess of thumb drives, chargers, and connective wires necessary for all of our electronic devices -- the futuristic version of my mother's Junk Drawer).  My husband and I each had one, gifts from his company, which we wore religiously; he and I competed to climb the most stairs, to walk the most steps, and to grow the tallest flower on the tiny FitBit screen.  Come to think of it, I don't think he was competing with me.  But at the time, that was irrelevant.

One day, I guess I forgot to put it back on.  Or maybe I got frustrated and fired it.  So did my husband.  And you know how it goes.  Miss a day, miss two days, and your FitBit dies a quiet death in the Technology Drawer.

This time, I'm the only one with the device, and I thought perhaps it wouldn't hold such power over me.  But I check it, tap it, intentionally take the stairs even when I'm wearing less sensible shoes, partly because I know it's counting.  And I know that I am not alone in this behavior.

We quantify ourselves in countless ways.  If you don't have a FitBit, you have an iPhone app that tracks exercise and nutrition.  Or you look at your blog stats.  Or your grades in school.  Or the number of Twitter followers you have.  Or the number of Facebook friends you've accumulated.  Or shares of your social media posts.  If you're feeling lazy, you let Klout do it for you, and though you complain about how irrelevant Klout is, you check it anyway when it sends you email about your declining score.  There is, I discovered, even a Quantified Self movement and global conference: people out there dedicated to the cause of defining ourselves by the numbers (the Measured Me site is a notable example, in which the subject is quantifying even his happiness).  Assessment is the watchword of educational institutions.  We are all counting, and accounted for, especially in a competitive environment.

I was a qualitative researcher in grad school.  I did my time in quantitative fields: an English major, I still managed to get through Calc II and Linear Algebra; I aced programming and discrete structures; I passed my quantitative methods courses with flying colors.  But I always felt like there was more to the issues than numbers, and I was relieved to discover that I could still write a respectable (in fact, award-winning!) dissertation without statistics.

It's like achieving balance in the kitchen.  Baking is a quantitative pursuit.  You can fool around with amounts of fat and flour and sugar and leavening agent, but if you fool around too much, you will guarantee yourself some flat, or mushy, or otherwise undesirable cupcakes.  So, provided you like cupcakes, quantitative work in the kitchen is important.  But if you eat only cupcakes, you're going to get sick.  Cooking things like curry or soup or stir fry, on the other hand, is qualitative.  You add some of this, and some of that, and sub in something else that you prefer, you taste it off, and voila! you have dinner.  Which is, in the end, probably better for you than cupcakes.  Unless you're Julia Child, and you're making a roux or a souffle, in which case, you're counting, but you might as well add more butter and call it a day.

The bottom line is: we need both qualitative and quantitative measures of the self.  While some measurement is important, we are not merely the sum of numbers on a FitBit, or our social media reach, or grades, or the salary we make.  It's easy to forget that, given the emphasis we place on quantifying success (see Arianna Huffington's conference on the Third Metric).  But every once in a while, it might do us good to fire the FitBit.  Even if it means that occasionally, we end up taking the elevator.

Do you quantify yourself?  What are your reactions to the Quantified Self movement?

Eggplant Curry
Play around with this.  The second time I made it, I tossed in two handfuls of green beans instead of one of the peppers.  Add a few more tomatoes.  Vary the salt.  Whatever you do, enjoy it.

3 Japanese eggplants cut into rounds or 1 medium eggplant, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 large onion, diced
4-5 medium Roma tomatoes, diced
2 T. coconut oil
1 t. cumin seeds
2 T, ginger, grated
1/8 t. turmeric powder
3/4 t. garam masala
salt to taste
1 c. coconut milk

Heat oil in a heavy stock pot. Add cumin seeds; when the seeds begin to crackle, add onion and saute until it is transparent.  Add ginger, turmeric powder and garam masala and stir for a few seconds.

Add tomatoes and stir and allow to cook until soft and mushy.

Add peppers, eggplant, and salt to taste and mix well.  Cover and allow the bell pepper and eggplant to cook on medium low heat, checking regularly to stir, making sure that there is enough liquid in the bottom of the pan, and adding a splash of water if it's too dry.

When the vegetables are soft, add coconut milk, a little at a time, and stir gently over low heat (do not boil).

Serve with rice. Or whatever strikes your fancy.
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  1. Beautiful post. I have heard about the measured me movement and it is completely anathema to my being! I guess, though, that I have tried to toss out all measurement sticks because by all standards I consider, my life has been a series of failures....but mostly due to circumstances outside my control. So, I've let go the idea that I have any control. I wouldn't suggest this nihilist approach, but I challenge people to drop any form of measurement. I guess I could make an exception for things that make you feel good about yourself, like FitBit.

  2. A friend of mine was just telling me about some fascinating research where they put some kids through school (in the UK I think) without ever grading them. They never had a test or an exam until the final GCSEs, and they all did better than expected. The rationale being that if you aim for a particular grade you'll stop when you get there, but if you just keep enquiring, learning, finding out - you'll learn more and more and more and excel. Which I think proves that qualitative is better than quantitative, or something.

  3. Great post with a lot to chew on... As you know I got a FitBit for running the BlogHer Best Buy 5K with you, too. I LOVED IT in the beginning and wore in constantly and was fascinated by all the things you shared.

    But then at some point I realized it was making me a little bit obsessed, in that I would put it on my PJs first thing in the morning, as not to miss steps from my bed to the bathroom (I never mastered the wearing it to sleep thing or understood how it works) and other such instances. So one day I "took a break" and haven't put it on back since.

    I will likely try it again someday soon, but it is such an interesting exercise in measuring ourselves. Also, I was fascinated by how accurate and inaccurate it seems to be at times. I taught a step class a few weeks ago and it didn't register any of that movement as climbing staircases. Go figure...

    Anyway, I really like your insights here and what RunningMama and Maud shared. That is so interested about the research with no grades. That totally makes sense to me. I wonder personally how it would effect my motivation and my kids' given the chance to try something like that.

  4. So funny - I was just checking out the Fitbit Flex and deciding if it would become an idea given out for my birthday and thought to catch up with your blog and here it is! I love the connections you make and your close and deep readings. As a mostly non- quantitative person (I got through Calc 1 in college and never looked back), I'm wondering how and if I'll process this info or get bored quickly...


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