Notes on the effects of stress

I was looking for something in my tomboy notes and found some notes from Alan Carter's presentation at OSCON. I remember I was deeply interested in what he had to say and I thought I'd dump the notes here in case it's of interest to you as well.

The Effects of Stress on Programmers' and Groups' Performance

Alan Carter, OSCON 2008

  • "your mental desktop shrinks to be less than the problem you're trying to solve when you're stressed"
  • co-workers telling you how to "fix" code while looking over your shoulder:
  • preaching is the lack of direct perception
  • preaching doesn't lead to good practice.

You need context to collaborate. If you are stressed your mental desktop is too small collaborate. Non-stressed people write beautiful code.

Open Source:
Open source is a voluntary activity by like minded people. They are like minded because they can see complex stuff. Peer recognition maintains a population inversion. Creativity and process are complementary. Now you know why your programming "den" is important!

Closed source implications:
Reduce the light levels to reduce the stress. Creates a library effect. Take out half the bulbs to reduce the light. Assure privacy (avoid open plans), control bells and conversation. There is never a time code for managing the time management system (pathological admin). Provide good reason to have self-confidence. Know what is not your problem so that you can give the full mental desktop to the actual problem at hand. Just because someone has a big desktop doesn't mean they know it. Display of anxiety is considered acceptable, but that limits the ability to produce work. Juxtapositional thinking is so rare that it is mythical. The artists live somewhere else. All creative programmers and artists regularly escape.

Cocaine and stress have the same effects. They both reduce situational awareness while inducing excesss self-confidence (also happens in failing software projects). Stress causes relapse. Anxious children succumb to addiction in school. No one would realize the children were doing things that habitually reduced cognitive awareness.

Books to read
Narcissistic process and corporate decay by howard schwartz -- the theory of the organization ideal. American Mania (people go to work to chase dopamine/stress) by peter whybrow. Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand).

W Edwards Deming's 14 points:
Drive out fear, break down barriers. Eliminate slogans and targets for the work force. Remove yourself from habituated behaviours.

Artists and Hackers. We all lose the ability to think when under stress, but some people seek out stress. ADHD.....

Rand Corporation stress and performance: a review of the literary and military performance.

Alan's Web site: www.the-programmers-stone.com


PS Of course I'd like to pretend this is completely irrelevant to my life right now, but the book is coming along slowly. Chapter Five has been gutted and I am in the process of re-writing it. Some elements remain. This week I am also out of town to deliver an on-site training session for a client and deliver two conference presentations at the FSOSS conference (Subverting Proprietary Economics) and Ontario Linux Fest (Version control for mere and freelance mortals) (both in Toronto). I look forward to seeing you at these two fantastic conferences! If you see me, please say hi! You might need to remind of my name when you introduce yourself though. ;)

Crowdsourcing and Gift Economies

Explaining open source is sometimes a little tricky. (Only sometimes though. Honest.) Depending on who I'm talking to I'll explain that working on an open source project is a little bit like volunteering to sing with the church choir. Even if the person isn't religious, they can usually appreciate the beauty of a group that sings in unison. They also understand the more the choir practices together, the better they sound. On more than one occasion this explanation has been the "aha" moment that snaps my life and my business ethics into focus for a friend or a client. The analogy doesn't, however, work when trying to explain crowd sourcing.

I am working on a new project that will offer (free) audio interviews with community "elders." The audio interviews will have transcripts and will need to be translated into multiple languages. I've convinced the project lead to turn to the internets and use crowd sourcing to make these translations happen. On the one hand they may not be perfect, and they may not all happen instantly, on the other hand I think it would be an amazing school project for someone that is learning a second language...to translate part of the audio interview and to help spread the cultural knowledge from one community to another.

The project lead is skeptical about this whole "people will work for free" thing. She's asked me to find some more reading material on crowdsourcing and gift economies to get a better understanding of what it's all about (and why we do it and why it makes perfect business sense). I have to admit that I know it works more based on my gut than because of specific research. I've found the following articles with a quick google search. Do you know of more? Please leave your suggestions in the comments!

(Yes, I'm pretty sure this is me crowdsourcing my crowdsourcing research. The irony is not lost on me.)

I also want to open up the real can of worms: licensing. If you were doing this kind of project, how would you license the content on the site? Would you use different licenses for the "primary source" material and the contributed translations?

Fitts, Hick and the Laws of Clutter

Last night I attended a workshop by Lynda Chiotti. Today I started to solve my clutter problem. Lynda used Information Architecture principles to help address clutter problems. As she talked about Findability I realized that my clutter problem was directly related to having too many things immediately findable. It was time to prioritize what I needed to find NOW and what I could safely store "out of sight." My biggest clutter problem is in my "craft" room. It is overflowing with craft supplies from bookbinding, spinning, knitting, crochet, quilting, sewing, photography, silk screen printing, fabric dyeing, (and more). Some of these crafts I am actively working on, and some I am not.

Thinking back to Lynda's workshop I realized my clutter problem was just like a software interface problem. The targets I'd created for "stuff" were inappropriately sized. This is where Fitts' and Hick's laws come into play. I first heard read about them in Jef Raskin's book, The Humane Interface (skip to page 93). Fitts' Law basically states the bigger the target, the easier it is to hit. Hick's Law basically says the more information you need to process, the longer it takes to make a decision.

With Fitts' and Hick's laws in mind I grouped my clutter: what tasks do I currently work on infrequently? These tasks could be given a small target with a longer decision making process. In other words: all bookbinding-related materials could be moved to the back of the storage area. "The back" is a small target. It also requires a lot of decisions once I get there. For example: do I want papermaking supplies? Or softcover bookmaking supplies? or ... the list goes on. But I can make that decision once I've reached the back of the closet. And because it is a small target I won't be constantly making decisions on the things I'm NOT doing. 

This afternoon I removed things that were not going to be useful to me in the next year from the bedroom storage area. This included a 3' high stack of compacted FedEx-branded boxes from when I was a bookbinder sending handmade books to clients. Mum will use the FedEx boxes at her store (I called first to confirm they would be useful and thereby not passing clutter from one person to the next). I also removed a black and white laser printer that I haven't decided what to do with, but I can at least touch now without having to climb over things. I believe the printer will go to the electronics graveyard along with a computer that was meant to be set up as a fileserver three years ago.

In the space that I created by removing only one "column" of stuff I moved THREE columns of bookbinding equipment and raw materials to the bedroom storage space. This left a (relatively) enormous hole in my craft room. All of my boxes of fabric and yarn have filled this hole against the wall freeing up the middle of the room to identify the real clutter. The storage areas aren't completely invisible, and the boxes are well labeled, so I am not at risk of truly losing things.

If only digital interface design could be as easy and as obvious this...

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