About three weeks ago I finally received my Wakemate. A part of the burgeoning quantified self movement and yet another example of a product made possible by the last half-decade’s debut of cheap silicon accelerometers, it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect me to buy.

Wakemate is built on three ideas borrowed from sleep research. First: we experience a recurring cycle of sleep states during a night’s rest. Pretty much everyone’s aware of this, if only because it was part of an episode of Star Trek. Over the course of a night you spend progressively less time in a deep sleep state, and more in light states where dreaming occurs.

Second: these sleep states are measurable using a technique called actigraphy. As this paper explains, during sleep the motion of your non-dominant wrist seems to correlate pretty well with more precise measures of sleep state. You can get a decent measurement of sleep state just by tracking what your left hand is up to.

Third: your level of grogginess upon waking varies depending on which part of your sleep cycle you’re in when your alarm goes off. This is known as sleep inertia, and the WM’s creators have a few paper excerpts about it here.

The Wakemate folks took these three ideas and combined them — in a way sure to elicit much (potentially justified) tongue-clucking from sleep researchers — into a product. Put on a wristband, load a program on your phone, and set a twenty-minute window during which you’d like to wake up. The device keeps watch during that time period for moments when you seem to be in a light sleep state, doing its best to find one and rouse you in a way that minimizes grogginess (if it doesn’t find one, it’ll wake you up at the end of the time window). The idea’s so clever that I barely care whether it works.


I first heard about all of this from my colleague Kevin back in February of last year. It sounded like an interesting idea, and for just $5 you could reserve your place in line for the device (it ultimately cost me $50; it’s now selling for $60). Wakemate is a Y Combinator startup, and its founders went through a semi-hilarious series of problems as they tried to ship their first product. Bad wristbands. Delayed electronics. Problems with Apple certification. The thing finally arrived, months late; the next day I got an email warning me that the included power adapter might burn my house down. And for the first week or so, the app only woke me up at the end of the 20-minute window — at the fail-safe point — seemingly because it wasn’t able to communicate with the wristband (I had to reboot the latter unit multiple times to get the night’s data downloaded). With the exception of the charger (any USB adapter will do), all of these problems have been fixed. But it was a bumpy ride. Kevin still hasn’t received his.

Surprisingly Plausible

Here’s the source data from last Thursday’s sleep, and Wakemate’s classification of that data into sleep states.

This seems kind of reasonable! Check out the huge spike at the beginning of the accelerometer time series. That’s when I was still awake and reading. Over the course of the night I went through about four cycles, spending less time in deep sleep each iteration. You can see four clusters of movement data, too. This isn’t the cleanest night’s worth of data — I didn’t feel like clicking through all of them to find the tidiest — but as I’ve looked at these over the past few weeks, I haven’t yet seen any patterns that seemed implausible either in terms of the reported sleep cycle pattern or its correlation to the underlying movement data.

Does It Work?

At first I was a bit disappointed: the central gimmick of the WM didn’t seem to be working. If anything, I seemed to be groggier than usual when I woke up. But as I already mentioned, I eventually realized that the alarm was only going off at the end of the twenty minute window. I emailed WM’s extremely responsive support line and was told that the issue had already been fixed in software and was just waiting on Apple certification. Happily enough, I was able to download the update by that evening. And although the days since have seen a suspicious number of wakings during the first minute of the alarm period, I’m actually surprised to report that it might be working. I’m still plenty groggy during the minute or two when I futz with the alarm (and report my level of alertness using the software slider). But I’ll be damned if I don’t seem to snap out of it sooner than usual.

On the other hand, this may not have anything to do with the timing of the alarm: it might just be that I’m getting more sleep. Which brings me to the best thing about Wakemate.

Data Porn

I was most excited for the alarm functionality, but the analytics package that WM provides has proven to be its most compelling feature. Your nightly sleep data is uploaded each morning and placed into an attractive interface. You can easily find information about time spent asleep, how long it took you to fall asleep, and how many times you woke up in the night. It’ll also show you how your recent performance in these areas compares to your career average, and to that of the entire population of WM users.

You can also tag each night’s sleep when you set the alarm — did you read before bed? go to the gym? drink alcohol? — and perform comparisons between tags.

Perhaps less helpfully, WM provides a “Sleep Score”. I can’t find any detailed information about how this is calculated — I suspect that this opacity is intentional, both to allow the formula to be tweaked and to keep users from trying to game it. And while it’s sort of amusing to have competitive sleeping leaderboards (how does Justin Sweetman sleep so virtuosically?), the scores seem to me to be basically bullshit. I tend to score highest when I’ve gone to bed late and with alcohol in my system; as you might guess, my scores don’t correlate very well with how rested I feel. You seem to be penalized for “low quality” sleep, even if it means more sleep — in other words, collapsing from exhaustion and sleeping like a corpse for three hours might earn you a higher sleep score than getting a normal night’s rest.

Since I’m on a bit of an Excel kick, here’s a plot of my sleep scores versus minutes asleep (WM recently added the ability to download your data as a CSV, which is nice of them).

Admittedly, I don’t yet really have enough data for that trend line to be meaningful. But I have my suspicions.

Still, I’ve actually found the product to be worthwhile, not just as an interesting exercise in navel-gazing. For instance, it turns out there’s a reason my Sundays aren’t very productive:

I honestly had no idea I was getting so little rest on weekends.

In general, I’d say that it’s been surprising and useful to have the amount of time I spend asleep quantified. I’ve always needed a relatively large amount of rest in order to function. I have nothing but admiration (and jealousy) for those of you who get five hours a night, hop out of bed, write a thousand words and run a half marathon. But I just can’t do it. At the absolute depths of puberty/hibernation my body, when left to its own devices, was helping itself to twelve or thirteen hours of sleep a night. That’s thankfully not necessary any more, but I’m certainly not at my best when I get less than eight hours.

Wakemate has actually been useful for telling me when I’m not taking very good care of myself, and has provided a small but real incentive for paying attention to when I should call it a night. Admittedly, you can see that incentive diminishing in the above graph as the novelty of the WM wears off. Still, I’ve found the information useful.

Anyway, if it sounds appealing, you might want to give it a try — although until I’m more convinced of the alarm’s utility, I’d suggest considering the FitBit as well. I haven’t tried FB, but in addition to sleep analysis it quantifies your activity during the day, which might be interesting. It hasn’t got any anti-sleep-inertia alarm functionality, but perhaps that’ll be added later.

everyone has a right to their beliefs

I’m sorry, but no. It’s a lousy polemic. Here’s its structure:

  1. SEO-friendly statement of controversy
  2. Presentation of opinion A. Assertion that people who hold it are rubes.
  3. Presentation of opinion B. Invocation of authority.
  4. History lesson! Discussion of old technology; no mention of enforcement of author’s preferred orthodoxy by newer technology (e.g. HTML rendering multiple spaces as one)
  5. Rumination on beauty. Grecian urns, etc.

For now let’s ignore the ignore the bullying nature of this argument (it should be obvious to anyone that those of us who believe in two spaces are a minority that’s relentlessly and mercilessly persecuted by the bloodthirsty masses, both through jeremiads like Manjoo’s and through the technological eradication of our ability to express our beliefs). Which of the points in the above argument are rhetorically meaningful?

Only point 3 really carries any weight with me. I’ll take Manjoo’s word that all typographers like a single space between sentences. I’m actually pretty sympathetic to arguments from authority, being the big-state-loving paternalist that I am. But, with apologies to friends and colleagues of mine who care passionately about this stuff, I lost my patience with the typographically-obsessed community when they started trying to get me to pay attention to which sans-serif fonts were being used anachronistically on Mad Men.

I love you guys, but you’re crazy. On questions of aesthetic preference there’s no particular reason that normal people should listen to a bunch of geeky obsessives who spend orders of magnitude more time on these issues than average. It’s like how you probably shouldn’t listen to me when I tell you not to use .doc files or that you might want to consider a digital audio player with Ogg Vorbis support. I strongly believe those things, but even I know they’re pointless and arbitrary for everyone who doesn’t consider “Save As…” an opportunity for political action.

Nor should we assume that just because typographers believe earnestly in the single space that their belief is held entirely in good faith. They’re drunk on the awesome power of their proportional fonts, and sure of the cosmic import of the minuscule kerning decisions that it is their lonely duty to make. Of course they don’t want lowly typists exercising their opinions about letter spacing. Those people aren’t qualified to have opinions!

(For what it’s worth, I don’t think you rabble should be using Flash or Silverlight or anything other than plain text in your emails. You can’t be trusted with it! And, not that this motivates me or typographers at all of course (we just want what’s best for you), but when you do such things it makes my job slightly harder.)

Manjoo’s argument about beauty, like all such arguments, is easy enough to dismiss: I disagree. I find it easier to read paragraphs that are composed of sentences separated by two spaces. Perhaps this is because I, like most technologists, spend most of my time working with (quite lovely!) fixed-width fonts for practical reasons. But there’s also a deeper beauty to the two space rule — a sort of mathematical beauty. Let me explain.

Consider the typical structure of writing. Letters are assembled into words, which turn into phrases, which are arranged into sentences — at the same time being assigned to speakers, a neat trick — which are then combined into paragraphs.

It’s a chemical process, a perfect and infinitely flexible hierarchical system that should command our admiration. Being able to rationally examine, disassemble and interrogate the final product is a mark of the system’s beauty. Anything less is settling for a sort of holistic mysticism.

It’s disrespectful to let writing’s constituent elements bleed into one another through imprecise demarcations. If you see me “making mistakes with comma placement”, please rest assured that I’m doing it deliberately. In most cases the comma doesn’t belong to the phrase delimited by the quotation marks that enclose it. Placing an exclamation point or question mark to the left or right of a close-quote is a weighty decision! That we violate the atomic purity of quotations with injected commas is an outrage.

And though I don’t get quite as worked up about it, the same sort of thinking motivates my belief in the double space. Sentences deserve to be clearly delineated, but because of the complications of quotation, ellipses, interrogatives and exclamations (among others), there is no reliable punctuation that can be counted on as a terminator for sentences. Single spaces are already spoken for: they separate words. The double space is an elegant and subtle solution.

To operationalize it: I can split any of the paragraphs in this post (as composed, not as rendered) into its constituent sentences with a simple line of Python:

[cc lang=”python”]
for x in paragraph.split(‘ ‘):
print repr(x)

“And though I don’t get quite as worked up about it, the same sort of thinking motivates my belief in the double space.”
“Sentences deserve to be clearly delineated, but because of the complications of quotation, ellipses, interrogatives and exclamations (among others), there is no reliable punctuation that can be counted on as a terminator for sentences.”
“Single spaces are already spoken for: they separate words.”
“The double space is an elegant and subtle solution.”

Further disassembly is easy from there. I can’t do that with the degenerate text that Manjoo prefers. As a journalist who makes his living on consumers’ pageviews it’s perhaps understandable that he would deliberately complicate news consumption for his non-human audience. But I hope the rest of us can make our aesthetic decisions a little less selfishly.

David Wynn Miller

It’s a little pointless to speculate about where the Arizona shooter got some of his super-crazy ideas: presumably he will eventually be medicated and/or interviewed enough to simply tell us. Still, the press’s sudden fascination with David Wynn Miller strikes me as a little over-eager. There isn’t really much evidence tying him to Loughner. Yes, both men seem to have strange ideas about the government using grammar as a means of mind control. It seems perfectly possible — maybe likely — that Miller’s the source of that. But for what it’s worth, I think we probably shouldn’t rule out simultaneous, uh, discovery.

It’s just that Miller’s ravings aren’t as novel as they might seem. Consider timecube.com (it’s a lot sadder to read than it was a couple of days ago). In this case the author is convinced the government is exerting control through a conspiracy centered around the 12 hour clock. There’s also plenty of railing against evil educators, biblical allusions and specious logic.

In Gene Ray’s case it’s the clock, not grammar. But it could easily have been grammar. This kind of sickness seems more about obsessive and broken thought than conceptual synthesis. Whatever bibliography we generate is going to be meaningless, and it seems a bit ludicrous to be playing name-your-influences as if Loughner had just released a debut album.

right now the present sucks anyway

I’ll keep my ill-advised and emotional reactions to the horror in Arizona confined to Twitter for now (though I should say that I’m quite certain I have a unique and trenchant perspective on the matter, having had a brief and superficial conversation about gun control with a cab driver in Phoenix last month). Let’s talk about something totally different!

I just stumbled across a video that explains my favorite experimental neuroscience result pretty well:

Libet’s work isn’t the conclusive case against free will that it might seem at first blush. Neural evidence of motor planning can occur without resulting action; such planning may not occur in the same way for different types of decisions; and you can come up with various free-will-as-last-minute-veto accounts that strike me as pretty lame but seem to make some people feel better. You don’t have to accept conscious experience as an epiphenomenon. Still, I’ve always found the result a great means of attaining a mild but pervasive sense of existential worry, which I think is worthwhile on its own merits.

I was prompted (through a clear chain of causation!) to search for the video after reading this (PDF), via Trivium. It’s short and worth a look. It descends into improbable and grandiose flourishes after the first column (people like me would keep a Predictor on their keychain and then get on with their lives). But with all the excitement over Daryl Bem’s paper that’s arisen during the last few months, I’m feeling pretty good about my odds of being able to buy a Predictor-like gadget from DealExtreme in the next decade or two.