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Stephen Wolfram's Personal Analytics

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 12, 2012 10:06 AM

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Stephen Wolfram is a mathematician, computer scientist, inventor, and author; he's the polymath genius behind the computer program Mathematica, the online "computational knowledge engine" Wolfram Alpha, and the sweeping scientific opus A New Kind of Science. Over at his blog, Wolfram has written what has to be the ne plus ultra of a certain genre of blog post: A comprehensive review of data he's collected about his life going back to the 1980s, complete with scatterplots.

Much of the data is computer-based: Wolfram can tell you the number of emails he's sent and received, the number of hours he's spent on the phone, the number of keystrokes he's typed -- even the percentage of keystrokes he's entered since 1990 which were "backspace" (7%). He uses the data to reveal the daily patterns of his life, as well to see how changes in his data-world correlate with big life events. What strikes Wolfram most is how "shockingly regular" his schedule is -- a choice on his part, he explains, because routine enables him "to be energetic—and spontaneous—about intellectual and other things." What strikes me is how hard he works: the probability that he will be on the phone talking to a colleague at 11 p.m. on a weekend is 50%.

There's more to come: Wolfram has scanned 230,000 pages of paper documents from his past, and has yet to analyze data from medical test data, his genome, "GPS location tracks, room-by-room motion sensor data, endless corporate records—and much much more." "I suppose my greatest regret," he writes, "is that I did not start collecting more data earlier." It won't be long, he predicts, "before it’s clear how incredibly [personal analytics] is—and everyone will be doing it, and wondering how they could have ever gotten by before. And wishing they had started sooner, and hadn’t 'lost' their earlier years."

Much more at Wolfram's blog.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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