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Seth Roberts, RIP - Input Junkie
April 29th, 2014
07:17 pm


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Seth Roberts, RIP
Seth Roberts, a notable self-experimenter, died suddenly on April 16.

I enjoyed his blog, and have gotten value from his recommendation of between a teaspoon and a tablespoon of honey before bedtime. As far as I can tell, it improves my sleep and gives me a little more drive to do things.

While I think he went overboard in recommending things that he found were good for him as good for everyone, I believe his basic ideas of self-experimentation (do a lot of experiments, look for big changes, pay attention to spontaneous improvement and worsening as prompts for hypotheses to test) are sound.

Discussion of whether some of his experiments (he ate a high-fat diet) may have contributed to death. He'd found that butter, especially, led to the ability to do simple computations faster, and he found that 4 ounces/day was a good quantity for that.

He believed that fast computation was a good surrogate for brain health, and brain health was a good surrogate for overall health. I will say that the chain of reasoning is looking a little more shaky than I'd noticed.

Still, it's not even clear what he died of, let alone whether anything he was doing had an effect.

His self-experimentation definitely contributed to his quality of life-- he found adequate solutions to insomnia (standing on one leg to exhaustion, and later, honey before bedtime) and depression (looking at faces in the morning), not to mention the Shangri-La Diet (eating a little low flavored food a hour before meals), which causes weight loss for a fair number of the people who tried it. (And does nothing for about as many, and stalls out at a 20 or 30 pound weight loss for the rest. I haven't heard any explanation for the varied results.)

Seth Roberts' last column, which includes:
It was nice to know all that but I did wonder: Was I killing myself? Fortunately I could find out. A few months before my butter discovery, I had gotten a “heart scan” – a tomographic x-ray of my circulatory system. These scans are summarized by an Agatston score, a measure of calcification. Your Agatston score is the best predictor of whether you will have a heart attack in the next few years. After a year of eating a half stick of butter every day, I got a second heart scan. Remarkably, my Agatston score had improved (= less calcification), which is rare. Apparently my risk of a heart attack had gone down.

Some of Roberts' recent thinking was about the importance of intrinsic motivation-- teaching in a way that hooked students' initiative (and made grading very difficult-- and the idea that research is best done independently rather than as part of a job.

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(3 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:April 30th, 2014 04:27 pm (UTC)
When you told me about him & butter, I did comment that what feels best in the short run might not be best in the long run.

OTOH, as you say, he may have died of something totally unrelated, or, like Jim Fixx, would have died even earlier of whatever it is if he had not lived the way he did. Re the heart scan, I'd also want to know what other changes he made at the same time--I'd be much likelier to adopt those changes (if they seemed to fit my life).

I do think that just self-experimentation is probably misleading in at least two ways, and I would not adopt anything based on that dat alone, without checking into medical research that (1) does look at long-term changes and (2)goes by numbers rather than one individual.
[User Picture]
Date:April 30th, 2014 05:32 pm (UTC)
Some of what he recommended (faces in the morning for depression, standing on one leg for insomnia, delaying first meal of the day for insomnia*) seem likely to be harmless, and probably should be held to a lower standard than eating lots of butter.

Also, the improved reflexes he got from eating animal fat didn't feel good to him-- I asked, and he said he couldn't feel a difference. So it was testing good rather than feeling good.

I have a notion it's safer to work on solving problems than to aim for optimization from a basically healthy baseline.

*I think he was a bit clearer that this was something which was good for him but not necessarily good for everyone with insomnia.

Edited at 2014-04-30 05:33 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:April 30th, 2014 11:54 pm (UTC)
Statistician Andrew Gelman, a longtime friend of Seth Roberts, has the best retrospective I've read so far.

Yours is good too.
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