Seperation of American Concerns

by Jon Davis 29. September 2008 17:40

I'm going to post a non-technical and non-career related entry now and comment on the state of our nation, the United States of America. I'm only posting here now because I haven't gotten around to putting up a personal blog yet, and I'm not sure that I ever will.

I am a fellow with a lot of emotional baggage. I have a lot of opinions, a lot of hurts, and a lot of reasons to feel lonely or sad. I don't know if three months from now I'll even have a home, because my current job is a short-term contract gig. Yet, at this precise moment I'm sitting comfortably in front of a new 28" monitor that I bought for myself a few weeks ago, on a nice, equally new office chair with suede fabric, typing on a cool little Mac Mini in my home office, while three other PCs are humming in the living room--a laptop, an HTPC, and a music / gaming / development workstation. My stomach is full. There's gas in my car .. and indeed, I have a car. So, who cares if I've felt grumpy lately? Not a soul in the world; I have every reason to be satisfied in life, because today I am comfortable.

These circumstances in my personal life are a lot like America's circumstances on the whole right now. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. People have fear. But right now, there's still an economy going out there, and even if things get a lot worse than they are now, we'll still be an insanely comfortable nation. We might be shifting from a plush extremity to normalcy. This shift is true of housing prices, especially. Greedy people are facing losses. Wiser people are going to be challenged. But look at us. Who should really feel sorry for us if we lose some of our wealth? Now, granted, other countries are going to suffer from America's so-called "losses". But frankly I think the whole situation is a lot more dramatic than real.

The thing to keep in mind about this situation is that it's primarily related to the greedy home buying that went on in the beginning and middle of this decade, and the greedy banks that wanted to be in on it, too. I myself got sucked into it because there was just so much greed, greed was the popular thing, and with my rental apartment converting to a condo, I didn't want to move. I never dreamed, moving to Scottsdale, Arizona, that I'd "own" (or rather, pretend to own, having a mortgage with no equity) a home of my own that was "worth" (at mortgage value) a quarter of a million dollars. Frankly, I can't afford it, I'll never afford it. It's a second-floor apartment, not a mansion with a yard and a fence. Yet, I've refused to throw myself into foreclosure just because the real value is less than the mortgage. That's exactly the action, multiplied by tens of millions of bad citizens, that put us into this mess to begin with. I am a firm believeer in doing what's right on principle, no matter the cost, and that means if you take a risk, face your own consequences.

The world does not owe me a standard of living. I was lucky enough to have the opportunities I've had, and then I chose to take advantage of them as much as I could. But now if those opportunities are taken from me, it is selfish lunacy for me to bicker and argue and demand that the world restore the opportunity before me again, immediately. What motivates a mind to believe that the world owes us anything is only gluttony of selfishness and greed.

The role of government in our society was never meant to be a panacea. The failure/refusal of Legislation to pass the bailout bill today--a bill that would have rewarded the most greedy men in our nation with "free" money (loan, I assume)--really gave me a sense of relief today. I am not a Democrat nor a Republican. But I am offended that Republicans call themselves "conservatives" when they blow as much money as they do. And I'm equally scared of Democrats who seem to be insistent to convert our nation into a socialist state.

People compare this nation's circumstances and the potential circumstances to come with the Great Depression. I tend to think it more likely that we will go into war with another Hitler. It's just not going to happen right now. There are two really good reasons why.

First, this is not a stock market crash, this is a real estate crash. The home prices were out of control. But when the dust settles, there's something different about real estate versus stock: real property. Unlike a business that will fold once it loses funds, a home doesn't just vanish into thin air once it forecloses. Like bars of gold, a home retains most of its genuine value, simply by being. Ultimately, it will eventually balance out. As for the banks that are in the middle of this mess, they, too, were going out of control. I have no less than three credit cards in my wallet right now, when theoretically I really only need just one (or none?). The consumerism in this nation was also out of control, and in saying that I'm pointing at myself, too. Now in the area of investments, this is a GREAT time to invest in things of high retainability (real estate, commodities, etc.), I think. Things are going to get a lot "worse" the next several months, but the more things go down the more happy I am, because investment deals are looking more and more attractive. We should all be celebrating and investing, because the tide comes and goes routinely with frequency.

Second, communications, transportation, technology, and economic education have created an unbreakable mesh framework for our nation's infrastructure. The Great Depression's worst case scenarios happened because buyers and sellers could not communicate, people with supplies could not reach people in need, silence multiplied panic and pessimism, and ignorance fueled one bad business decision after another. You can tell our banks to eat their own fat. That's not going to bring down the businesses who have properly planned and are not built on stock revenue, or loans handed out to people who had no intention to swallow their own risk.

But the reason for the title of this article is because, frankly, the banks' own foolishness and greed is not something that deserves to be rewarded with hand-outs, any more than I deserve to have my mortgage dropped just so I can go on to the next cheapest home in this buy-low market. I took a risk, and I'm going to face my own consequences, not ask society to pay for my choices. And the people who walked away from their homes who wouldn't have done so if only their home value remained the same as their mortgage value do not deserve a break, either. If you buy a home, you make an investment at your own risk. Society doesn't owe you anything.

Granted, the role of government is to maintain peace and order, and a troubled economy is understandably a topic of concern for government. But to hand out money to the foolish decision makers who dug their own hole, just for them, is not going to help the problem, it's only going to reward the fools and teach them that they can be such greedy fools, and that everyone else, not them, has to pay for their excess. The bailout proposal would have left me, the home buyer who was willing to see this bad mortgage through for years to come, at a severely unfair loss, as those who simply walked away from their homes were rewarded. 

Alright, fine, the banks, not the people who walked away from their homes, would be seeking recovery; the people who walked away already did the walking, and now the banks are left in the cold. I have no pity for them. They chose their risks. Besides, it was the private banks that introduced fiat money and the income tax, to begin with. The income tax goes right back to the Federal Reserve, which is a private banking cartel including the likes of JP Morgan / Chase, to cover the cost of loan interest from congressional over-spending. This was the banks' design.

Personally if I had any say in the matter--I don't, but if I did--I'd say, let the banks ride out their own mess, and get back to work making money without loans. Quit borrowing money, and learn to save money instead.

Actually, the best thing Americans can do for the banks as well as for themselves, right now, is to start saving money in a savings account. The whole reason why we're in this mess is because of banks' lack of liquid assets. I think what a good Presidential leader should have done, instead of what ours did, is to ask the American people to start putting money into the banks today, rather than rely on taxes tomorrow, with all their overhead, as a way to balance the problem out.

Let the government focus on our safety. Let the banks suffer their own grief. I do not want to be party to a socialist society; that's just one step away from communism, and we're close enough to that as things already are.

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jQuery Has Won The 3+ Year Javascript Framework Battle (As Far As I'm Concerned)

by Jon Davis 28. September 2008 15:33

It's official. jQuery has become the new de facto standard for the web development community. By rolling jQuery in with Visual Studio and the ASP.NET core tools pipeline, a whole new precedent has been set in the software industry.

jQuery was already supported in many major IDEs, including Aptana Studio (which is built on Eclipse), but usually only sharing with other frameworks like prototype. But there are two IDEs that have pretty much ruled the software industry for the last several years: Visual Studio and Eclipse. Neither one has chosen any particular "favorite" Javascript open source framework. You usually get a bundle of different frameworks being supported or nothing at all (import something yourself or roll your own).

But Microsoft's decision to adopt a third party software framework, bundle it, and make it a foundational component of its own, is an earth-shaking paradigm shift. This is something that will turn the software industry on its head. There is a whole industry carved out from the trenches that Microsoft dug. Giving a third party framework the honor of being placed into the middle of it all and running half the show, so to speak, is absolutely breathtaking, a moment to be awed. Right now everyone should take a moment and let their mouths gape because this is just short of bizzare.

And I mean that with no pretentions. I'm not saying that "this is unlike Microsoft", although it is, because there really is no precedent for this. The only precedents I can think of have been support for open standards--support for HTML (Internet Explorer), HTTP, FTP (bundled in Explorer), the TCP/IP stack, OpenGL, keyboard/mouse standardization, compact disc file system support, and standard driver support. But all of those things have traditionally always had, with very few exceptions, a proprietary implementation of software of Microsoft's own making or bought out. Most of the exceptions come from third parties such as Intel, who licensed technology, which is not the same as bundling open source code.

jQuery is licensed on the MIT license. Microsoft will be a "normal" participant with the jQuery community just like anyone else; they will introduce ideas, report bugs, and propose bug fixes, but they will go through a QA and approval process just like everyone else.

The closest thing I can think of that even remotely equates to Microsoft getting this involved with and supporting of outsiders in the web community was back in the late 90s, when Microsoft got very involved with the W3C and helped shape the directions of Dynamic HTML and the DOM, not to mention their extensive involvement with the XML and then SOAP initiatives and the insanely detailed UDDI [dis]proving that followed. But once again, those are standards / protocols, not code. So even though Microsoft has done amazing shifts in supporting the open source communities with CodePlex (bravo!), I'm curious if this really is the first time, ever, that Microsoft has done this on behalf of their proprietary development platforms (Visual Studio, ASP.NET).

On a final note, I must say that I absolutely adore jQuery and what it does for web development. jQuery working with Microsoft's ASP.NET MVC and C# 3.0 w/ LINQ are all a match made in heaven. Knowing that Microsoft is going to build on top of jQuery is almost like getting a wonderful new programming language akin to C#, but built for the web. So really, my day just went from being depressed from the last week to being literally overjoyed like I just got engaged to marry someone or something.

Hiring The Inquisitive Mind

by Jon Davis 25. September 2008 18:40

You walk into a new contract to perform customizations to the company's proprietary web app. It's a mid-sized web app with a few hundred .aspx files and thousands of .cs files, with a detailed data layer. You're tasked to perform customizations to one of the more complex pieces of the web app, which uses third party controls and lots of code built around UI events.

The boss knows the answer to all questions, but he's only there about a quarter of the time, and when he is there he's only there for a few minutes and then he's gone for at least an hour again.

You want to be on your best behavior, but part of that is proving that you can be very productive. The person who originally implemented the code you're customizing has left the company. There is one fellow developer sitting on the other side of the cubicle. Since the boss is usually gone, you are tempted to ask questions to the other developer, but you know you're only given a few minutes / hours / days' grace to interrupt his/her workflow.

Question: How many minutes, hours or days is it appropriate to ask very trivial questions to the other developer in the boss's absence, such as "What's this object do, it's not obvious and I'm not seeing it referenced anywhere except here where it's updated", "Does the application have XX functionality that I can reference?", or "Do you know what I should do about YY behavior?"

 I asked this question in a "room" filled with fellow developers, and received very contrasting responses:

Answer 1: "Why don't you look at what the 'object' does yourself? 'Do you know what I should do about YY behavior' in my world becomes 'Where are the g**d*** SPECS?'"

Answer 2: "You're asking a really standard question for contract developers. It's really normal for a programmer that is being pushed too hard for fast development by the boss to write crappy code with little documentation and then quit from the pressure hehe. Then they hire someone else to fix the code. The question is, has the boss become more relaxed to allow the developer to do their job, or is the boss still just the boss. No doubt, to form good code, a programmer must never be rushed. But the boss is a boss first. Their duty is to productivity and revenue. There are good and bad bosses. Some bosses also know the employees that they're dealing with, but some are just delegators, not managers. You have to remember, bosses start as employees somewhere and are promoted over time. Some justly, some not so justly. They may or may not have the qualifications to be the boss. If it's possible, just map out the main functions of the program and concentrate on the areas that the boss is asking be reworked first. Try to take a little time each day to add comment summaries to each function if they arent already there. Start small. Over time you'll learn how the puzzle fits together and can address systemic problems then. More than likely the boss is watching you more to see how quickly you can analyze code and be self-sufficient. I'd limit the questions to only what is absolutely necessary with the other workers, hehe. The answer depends on the team and personalities, but [in the scenario you described,] you're too new to make that assessment. For now the answer is 0. Make a friend first."

Answer 3: "We have a mentor program here. New guys get a more seasoned person of their discipline to ask questions and get them up to speed. They also realize it takes anywhere from 3-9 months before the new person is self-sufficient."

When I was a teenager in 1994, I witnessed something that has followed me throughout the rest of my career. My father was going through a difficult period in his life, and he realized it had affected his job, so much so that he knew it was ending. In a discussion with his boss, he asked, "Did you expect me to hit the ground running?!" To which the boss replied, "Yes. I expected you to hit the ground running." This startled my dad, but he realized that his boss was right. And as he shared this experience with the rest of us, I could feel his pain. Even as I write this, I shed a tear or two for him, in memory of his anguish, because tough lessons like that are more devastatingly difficult to learn than anything else. Indeed, we as a family were all the way on the other side of the planet, in Nairobi, Kenya, on behalf of this job. And we had to turn back, and head back to the United States, because of a hard lesson learned.

I've had quite a few jobs in my career. I have sometimes (usually?) managed to show up trying to hit the ground running. And I generally succeed. I showe up being as productive as everyone else on the preexisting team within two or three days. I haven't been able to do that, though, without asking a lot of questions. But in no time flat I would turn around and have a lot of answers, too, that had been lost to the others on the team--I tried hard to make the most of my combination of industry experience and a fresh pair of eyes. Within weeks, I'd pooh pooh years-held workarounds to bugs and come up with better, faster, and more reliable solutions and share them with the team.

 

The more you know, the more you realize how little you know. (And if you don't know that then you're missing out.)

On the practical end, the above line ("The more you know..") shows itself proven when the questions being asked further the progression and involvement of development and deployment. Name any technical lead who is successful without being a great communicator, partly by the spoken word and partly by asking questions and listening to answers in order to forumulate the appropriate solution for the situation.

But I'll admit that on the flip side, asking a lot of questions up front in a new environment and situation makes a person appear unskilled. Personally, I think the opposite is the truth, but most employee folks don't realize it. An inquisitive mind is one who is smart enough to form the question--smart not only in choosing to do so and how to do so, but in knowing what questions to ask in the first place. Such is one who is also often careful not to sit around spinning wheels, which is a waste of not only that person's time but, more dangerously, the company dollar.

The mindset of the person who hates to be asked questions is usually driven by the frustration of being suddenly distracted from their work and having to face someone else's problem rather than their own. Seriously, though, how selfish. I knew a guy made me stand there and wait 5 minutes while he coded and occasionally held up a #1 finger ("one moment" gesture) just so I could get my 15 seconds out of him for an instant-answer question. How much time is lost to the question by the losing track of a chain of thoughts? I tend to think it's about double the time of the question. That said, though, if the question takes two minutes to answer and four minutes to refocus, that's six minutes lost, rather than another 5 minutes on top of it to wait, or thirty minutes lost to wheel-spinning by the asking party.

In my perspective, the most productive teams are the ones where all members are able to openly share the minds of the others, collaborate, and work together, for at least either a few short spurts during the day or for one or two dedicated hours during the day. This as opposed to coding in total heads-down isolation, with the same amount of time as otherwise spent collaborating, spent instead chatting about life and toys.

An IT / networking guy once told me, in the context of this, "What I tell the guys working for me is, 'Do what you can to try to figure out what you can for at least thirty to sixty minutes. If you still can't find an answer during that time, go to a co-worker, and if you still can't figure it out, only then should you come to me.'"

This attitude seems to be shared by many people in the technology industry; however, in the software engineering field, I am thoroughly persuaded that it is flat out wrong.

Do the math!

A) You spend two hours spinning your wheels. You finally reach what you think to be a eureka moment discovering the answer to your problem, but you soon discover that you were wrong. You spend another hour, and another after that, on false-guess workarounds to your problem. In the end, another hour is spent debugging your guesswork workarounds, but it all eventually gets functional, on your own.
Time/pay units wasted: 5 hours. And by the way, you're looking pretty sucky at this point.

B) You spend an hour spinning your wheels. You give up and talk to a permanent employee, who then gives up after fifteen minutes and so you go talk to the manager, who has the solution explained within five minutes. The co-worker loses another 20 minutes trying to get his/her mind back on track to what he/she was working on.
Time/pay units wasted: 2 hours (60 + 15x2 + 5x2 + 20 minutes).

C) You spend five minutes spinning your wheels. You give up and talk to your manager, who has the answer explained within five minutes.
Time/pay units wasted: 15 minutes (5 + 5x2).

Assuming that these scenarios are typical, only one conclusion can be made. From the perspective of the company's and tasks' best interests, there is no better person to have on your team than the one who asks a lot of questions up front. The more skilled individual will ask the more relevant question, not the lesser question. Questions that would solve the problem quickly--such as ideas and proposals in question form--rather than questions that introduce more questions.

Time spent spinning wheels is even more expensive if you're on a contract through a company like Robert Half Technology. Any company hiring through such a staffing firm is going to be paying out anywhere from 10% to 150% on top of what you're making. So when I'm working with an agency and I'm "out on the field", so to speak, as a contractor on a short-term "job" trying to accomplish some special tasks, I am absolutely frightened of spinning my wheels.

Indeed, while some managers would consider the highly inquisitive employee to be "high maintenance", supposedly "high maintenance" employees are proven to be shown to actually be the most valuable subjects of their management.

Incidentally, I don't just ask questions to fix my problems. Sometimes I ask questions to understand, so that I can be self-sufficient beyond the problem. I often ask questions to listen to the answerer's adjectives, word choice, side comments, and back stories. This is very valuable information that can really help in the understanding of the bigger picture and the way things are.

Not only do I feel free to produce questions, though, I also love to answer questions. Questions make me feel needed. They make me feel knowledgeable. They make me feel respected. No matter how extensive, complex, or brainlessly simple they are, and no matter how busy I am, I love it when people pick my brain.

The love of answering questions comes so naturally for me that I forget that other people hate it when I myself ask questions. But after so many jobs where I've been hounded for asking so many questions up front, I've reached some very important conclusions, of which I am beginning to feel strongly about.

1. I need to ask few or no technical questions from peers I don't know very well, because those whose time I am taking feel nothing like I feel when I enjoy being asked questions. Co-workers tend to hate questions like they hate bugs and spam. The manager, on the other hand, should be fully able to either answer the questions or to assign someone to answer questions. The manager's job is indeed to meet your needs. Both of you work for the same company. You don't work for the manager any more than the manager works for you. If the manager doesn't see it that way, and if the manager's refusal to give you his/her time or time with a co-worker is killing your productivity, then it's a crappy job and, if you have the option, you should look for work elsewhere. But if he/she is willing, no matter how intimidating, impose on your manager with questions, not your co-workers.
 

2. Companies and team leaders need to learn to train teams to embrace questions and teach people to enjoy answering peer questions rather than hate them. I don't know what it is that makes me so happy to be asked questions of, but I do believe it's a learnable trait. I'm also quite positive that it's something that can benefit a team and a company at large; I've only seen good come out of it, and the only negative I've seen has been flaring up of feelings and agitation. That, I believe, is correctable.

People need to be trained to be intellectually honest. This is a cultural mindset that says that:

  • It doesn't matter what you do or don't know, your knowledge about proprietary systems is a proprietary company asset that belongs to the company, not to you or to any one individual.
  • Answering questions earns you respect.
  • Admitting you don't know something wins you the opportunity to discover from the questioner's findings.
  • Being a go-to person is a role of leadership that brings you higher up the ladder (unless you refuse to answer, in which case respect goes through the floor).

3. Despite all that I've said, it's okay to put an end to too many questions. If someone is bothering you, it's fine to say, "Hey buddy, I think you're ready to be on your own now, if you have any further questions please save them for the manager." Completely okay. What's not okay is instead putting on a pouty face, making strange noises of irritation, lying through your teeth about how you don't know, and telling the boss that you're unable to get your work done because you're getting pestered. Until you've communicated a request for questions to stop (politely, ideally), that behavior is selfish.

I once had a guy sitting next to me who ignored me for one or two hours straight on a question that absolutely needed about sixty seconds of his time because he and I were the only engineers in the office and my hands were tied, before he spun around and shouted, "I don't f#$%'n know!!" This behavior is uncalled for. If I was a manager and witnessed that I'd fire such a person on the spot, with absolutely no care for what cost. That's beyond rude, it's reflective of a long-growing seed of unaddressed resentment and untrustworthiness, such being the kind of negative growth patterns that can tear a team apart and make it never function normally again until the problem is expunged. But that's just my view on that; I'm the one who got yelled at.

Possibly The Best Way To Be A Great Programmer: Be Brain-Healthy!!

by Jon Davis 6. September 2008 21:52

UPDATE: Check out these great links!

I was watching a television show on PBS (viewer-sponsored educational public broadcasting) about brain health. The speaker was Daniel G. Amen, author of the book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. This sort of show always grabs my attention, for one obvious reason:

I am a programmer, therefore my brain is my most important tool to invest in.

A programmer's job is among a few other jobs in this world that relate directly and primarily to brainpower; others are:

  • electronics engineers
  • lawyers
  • doctors
  • writers / authors

(Unfortunately, my brain stopped thinking of others by the time I wrote "writers".) This is not to say that other occupations don't use their brain; it's just that programmers primarily have to think, because to program is to teach computers to think.

Some moron in DZone posted the comment, "Your brain doesn't write programs. YOU write programs." News flash for idiots: Your brain is your "you" hardware, and just as a software program executes no faster and no more stable than the computer it runs on, you as a programmer are only as naturally smart and productive as your brain is healthy

There have been times, more now at my age of 31 than in my younger teenage and early 20s years, that I've begun to get frustrated and even scared of my brain's health. Names and numbers sometimes become forgotten. I'm sometimes unable to concentrate on anything. At home I rarely read all the way through any of the many books I own because I typically get halfway through a page and then, without thinking, grab my remote control and turn on the TV, or jump up to find something to eat or drink, or hit the Stumble! button on the StumbleUpon toolbar on my web browser. Sometimes I just have a hard time keeping my eyes open. Sometimes I feel depressed, I think a lot of negative thoughts, or I just feel knee-jerky.

Other days I'm doing great. I'm focused. I'm being productive. I get stuff done. I feel good. I have a smile on my face -- whether it's visible or not. Life just feels fulfilled.

I know the primary causes of what puts me off, I just need to pay better attention to them, and I suppose that's part of the reason why I'm writing this down now. Meanwhile, this PBS show put emphasis on these things and added specific details I need to be reminded of.

So I guess here are some of the most important things a programmer (or anyone I guess) can do to improve their brain's health. And believe me, I'm posting this for me more than for anyone else.

  • Sleep. No, seriously. Sleep. Go to bed on time, WoW / LOTRO / GW / et al should have no rights to your evening, in fact you shouldn't even let "being in the zone" in a software project deprive you of sleep. On that latter note, I've seen people whine in forums and mailing lists that "I've been up for the last 36 hours trying to fix a bug, I can't find it, what should I do?!" Yeesh, go to BED!! Staying up to solve a problem is only going to cause you to make things worse. 

    I have the best-selling book on programming Cocoa on the Mac, and it starts off saying that 1) you're probably not too stupid to get some things, some things are just hard, and 2) you should always get nine hours of sleep. A Cocoa book, telling me to get nine hours of sleep!
     
    • I sometimes struggle with sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is the problem a lot of Americans have of snoring or of being unable to breathe at night. Even if you're "asleep" in bed for eight or nine hours, sleep apnea is worse than getting very little sleep. It does two serious things: it deprives the brain of oxygen, which is much the same as blocked blood flow to the brain and also causes chronic headaches and sore spots on the head, and it causes the brain's level of consciousness to rise during sleep, so even if you're not aware that you're waking up, you are, because you keep SUFFOCATING on your own mouth/nose/throat. In essence, you're not really sleeping, or at least not deeply enough for it to count for much.
      In cases like mine, there's a cure for sleep apnea: lose weight!! Excess weight in the neck and face causes, well, weight to be applied to the windpipe, nasal passages, and mouth, collapsing the passageways. A couple years ago, my weight fluctuated, as did my sleep apnea, and I became close to useless at my job and was fearful of losing it (prematurely) because I wasn't alert, I couldn't think straight, I couldn't remember things or think things through (um, like the software I was writing), and I kept showing up late. Hopping on an "emergency diet" of 1,250 or so calories day and getting some exercise each day, I found normalcy in the quality of my days within about two or three weeks.
       
    • I tended throughout my younger adult years to be a night owl. I was 100% persuaded that "it's just the way I am" that, when I'm motivated to stay up late doing whatever it is I'm doing (writing software, playing a game, browsing the web, blogging, whatever), there's no stopping me, I'm like a freight train, I have too much momentum and no real sense of "I'm tired, it's time for bed" until about 4:00am. Many weekends I turn my days and nights upside down, and then I hate Mondays because I have to force it right-side up again. I'm also single, so it's not like I have family to remind me that it's time for bed (which is unfortunate, sometimes I literally just forget to pay attention to the time). But there are a few things I can do to compensate for this:
        
      • Have a social life with non-distracting friends and family. By non-distracting I mean not distracting people like those of the opposite gender (having a girlfriend will not help you sleep, especially if you're a geek like me, it will just make you confused, hopeful, frustrated, whatever -- not that I'm encouraging anyone to not have a girlfriend, I'm just saying that that doesn't fall into the context of "non-distracting") as well as frustrating relationships with people who make you have grudges or regretful memories or overly enjoyable or hopeful thoughts. Children are great for this.

        Why? Social life produces a certain degree of healthy mental stresses and after so much of these stress exercises in the day the brain may beg for rest. Plus, as long as you aren't stuck on obsessive thoughts or having high contemplation of tomorrow, there are usually very good side-effects between not just sleeping well and on time but generally feeling better about yourself.
               
      • Melatonin supplements should be considered experimental. Melatonin is the hormone that tells your body, "It's time to sleep." It's not quite the same as taking something like NyQuil, as it doesn't have the dizzying and/or drowsy effects of typical sleep medicines. It just makes your body feel like it's sleep time, naturally. It could be that my body doesn't produce enough of the stuff. I'd been pursuaded to try taking melatonin supplements before going to bed. Even just taking one 5mg tablet, though, a few hours before bed time, I find myself sleeping in quite late or else feeling like I should go back to bed if I can't sleep in. Limiting my intake to 2 or 3 mg might suffice -- or else not using it at all and finding other ways to improve my sense of sleep time. DO NOT OVERDOSE.  
           
      • Exercise. My weakest spot, there's no excuse for me except self-discipline. But I acknowledge that the body's demand for rest is driven in large part by the physical and mental stresses of the day, and imbalanced lack of demand from the body to rest at night, and physical desire to be lazy at day, is a clear sign of not enough exercise. It's correctable .. by exercising, of course.
          
  • Exercise. Yeah, I'm saying it again, because it doesn't just help you go to sleep in a balanced way, it is one of the most beneficial things for the brain. It increases blood flow to the brain. It increases serotonin, which is critical for proper brain health and combatting depression and A.D.D.
     
    But if you're like me, you're afraid to go to the gym because you're embarrassed by your being out-of-shape and being surrounded by all the in-shape people at the gym, so ..
     
    • Go on long walks around the neighborhood. No one has to see or even care about you, you're just walking, right? And if you have a dog, your dog needs exercise, too. (No dog should not be taken on walks; not taking a dog on walks and not at least giving a dog room to run around is, in my view, a bit abusive.)
       
    • If you have an extra room, designate it as a workout room. Add a large fan and a radio. Add some exercise "tools" like dumbells, a weight bench, a Bowflex, a treadmill. I have such a room but it has a super-cheap elliptical machine and a really cheap weight bench I bought at Wal-Mart that feels like it will snap and break apart every time I attempt to use it, so I am fearful of safety hazards. I rarely use this room anymore, but I should do what I can to change this. I've invested hundreds of dollars on technical books, but without the brain health to read them efficiently I wasted my money, unless I try to make a better investment in my exercise facilities as well.
        
    • If you have friends, find a workout partner. Going to the gym can be fun if you have a buddy with you, who can spot you or coach you or give you some competitive spirit or otherwise "keep you on your toes", as well as distract you from the embarassment aspects that keep you from the gym.
       
  • Diet (food and water intake) matters. You are what you eat, quite literally. Your brain is 60% water, so drink lots of water.
     
  • Always be learning about new things.The brain creates new connections and links between cells when you are trying to learn new things. As soon as you stop learning, the brain actively starts to de-link and break apart these connections. Find things to learn about. It doesn't work if it's directly related to what you're already doing--a cook learning a new recipe doesn't gain brain health by doing so because he's already a cook. I for one am thinking about taking classes at the local Community College about things that are totally different from my core interests and skills, but, while I am still on my job search, I'm currently slobbering over a job that substantially demands continued self-education and training and actually cares about technical certifications in the field. Jobs that do that are huge for promoting brain health, and that, I feel, is extremely ideal for me as a human being as well as for my continued career path.
       
  • Avoid alcohol, drugs, and smoking. I'm not writing this stuff for myself; I don't drink, I don't smoke, and I don't do drugs. But this stuff hurts the brain significantly, so it's worth noting for the record. Smoking significantly limits blood flow throughout the ends of the body. Alcohol significantly slows down and kills brain cells. And everyone knows that drugs do to the brain what a frying pan does to eggs. I don't do any of the above, but what applies to me..
        
    • Caffeine is a drug. Too much caffeine (more than a couple cups of coffee per day) is unhealthy for the brain, because it decreases blood flow to the brain. (Not sure how, just quoting this guy on PBS.) It also causes you to stay up late at night, of course.
        
    • Detoxify your body. A reader of this blog post (Krishnan Thodla) commented, "Undigested food/pollutants/environmental toxins (you mentioned a little bit) make your mind sluggish. Getting rid of these definitely improves your brain health too." (Thanks Krishnan!) 
       
      • Work environments can produce drug-like brain symptoms by way of air pollution. The story of a furniture factory worker was described on the PBS show, where a husband suddenly became "a jerk" and upon scanning it was found that his brain was significantly deteriorating similarly to alcohol and drugs. His problem turned out to be the workplace, where he was inhaling fumes and air pollutants that were as bad to the brain as drugs are. The doctor got him to find a different position in the company that didn't expose him to that environemnt. 
         
      • I once had some symptoms that were not unlike my sleep apnea symptoms when I had my windshield replaced. The fumes from the seal filled my car and the car stunk of the adhesive stuff that held the new windshield in place. I strongly believe that the headaches and difficulty to think and the dizziness were direct results of that; it all went away after a couple days.
             
  • Avoid sports that can cause injuries to the brain. Football, boxing, these are bad sports for the brain. The brain is very soft, in a very hard and "edgy" skull. Too much banging of the head and knocking the head around can cause a lot of trauma to brain cells. On the flip side, table tennis is considered the best sport for the brain, because it is safe for the brain in the avoidance of trauma, it encourages light exercise, and it forces the brain to coordinate hand, eye, and foot interaction with the gameplay. (I don't have room in my home for a ping pong table, but now I'm thinking of getting a Wii.)
       
  • Wear a safety belt, and drive safely. Car accidents often result in brain trauma. Even if you get out of an accident and your senses and motor skills and personality are not affected, you may still never be able to write software as well as you could before ever again.
        
  • Dwell on optimistic and/or true thoughts. Negative thoughts cause chemicals and activities in the brain that decrease the use of brain functions that encourage control and productive function, and increase the emotional aspects of the brain. Uncontrolled, negative thought patterns can become cyclical disasters. But here's a quote from the Bible that applies for good reason: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is fair, whatever is pure, whatever is acceptable, whatever is commendable, if there is anything of excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy--keep thinking about these things." (Phillipians 4:8) 
     
  • Listen to ambient or classical music. Speaking of personal experience, I've listened to every kind of music while working--I love it all!-- and the kind of music that makes me feel most like I'm actually being mentally productive is ambient music. Classical music and classic jazz works well, too.
     
    • Check this out: http://www.getimusic.com/  Be sure to follow all the Research links. It looks somewhat like a gimmick--I can hear some pretty strong "effects" and artifacts in the sample music, but I don't know that it's actually doing anything significant, it might be snake oil. But then, it might not be. And if not, wow, what an invention!!
       
    • Music or ambient sounds (like television) with verbal language -- sung or spoken, but particularly spoken -- makes a very difficult environment to focus on anything. You don't have to be listening to the words to be distracted; your ability to focus will be negatively affected even if not directly. Or at least, that's true for me. :)  That's why I opt for ambient, classical, and jazz music, but lots of people listen to techno or trance or other forms of electronica as well, with very positive results.
       
  • Try meditation. According to this guy on PBS, there was a study a while back where observers were expecting brain activity to decrease after a subject meditated, much like sleeping would do. Instead, the opposite happened; after meditation, the subject's brain was significantly more active and (s)he was more alert. I'm certain there's more to the story (in more fascinating detail) but I don't remember much more than that.
      
  • Try Yoga. I haven't tried it, so I'm going on hearsay. Those who do yoga mostly have wonderful things to say about the soundness of both body and mind. A commenter on this blog entry writes, "Pay particular emphasis on breathing exercises, and not just on the postures. The physical postures help relax your body, but the breathing exercises relax your mind."
      

Anyway, this is a good list. Back to work ..

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About the author

Jon Davis (aka "stimpy77") has been a programmer, developer, and consultant for web and Windows software solutions professionally since 1997, with experience ranging from OS and hardware support to DHTML programming to IIS/ASP web apps to Java network programming to Visual Basic applications to C# desktop apps.
 
Software in all forms is also his sole hobby, whether playing PC games or tinkering with programming them. "I was playing Defender on the Commodore 64," he reminisces, "when I decided at the age of 12 or so that I want to be a computer programmer when I grow up."

Jon was previously employed as a senior .NET developer at a very well-known Internet services company whom you're more likely than not to have directly done business with. However, this blog and all of jondavis.net have no affiliation with, and are not representative of, his former employer in any way.

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