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e-book Passing Ships Are Not Always Quiet

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Ocean uproar: saving marine life from a barrage of noise

Which brings us to schedules. Programmers are notoriously crabby about making schedules.


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There are too many planning decisions that the business needs to make well in advance of shipping the code: demos, trade shows, advertising, etc. And the only way to do this is to have a schedule, and to keep it up to date. The other crucial thing about having a schedule is that it forces you to decide what features you are going to do, and then it forces you to pick the least important features and cut them rather than slipping into featuritis a.

Keeping schedules does not have to be hard. Read my article Painless Software Schedules , which describes a simple way to make great schedules.

280 Amazing Silence Quotes That Will Make You Feel Calm

Do you have a spec? As a result, when teams consisting solely of programmers attack a problem, they prefer to express their solution in code, rather than in documents. They would much rather dive in and write code than produce a spec first. At the design stage, when you discover problems, you can fix them easily by editing a few lines of text. This seems to have been the problem at Netscape, where the first four versions grew into such a mess that management stupidly decided to throw out the code and start over. And then they made this mistake all over again with Mozilla, creating a monster that spun out of control and took several years to get to alpha stage.


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My pet theory is that this problem can be fixed by teaching programmers to be less reluctant writers by sending them off to take an intensive course in writing. Another solution is to hire smart program managers who produce the written spec.

Rowan Hudson's Passing Ships | Rowan Hudson's Passing Ships | CD Baby Music Store

Learn all about writing specs by reading my 4-part series. Do programmers have quiet working conditions? There are extensively documented productivity gains provided by giving knowledge workers space, quiet, and privacy. The classic software management book Peopleware documents these productivity benefits extensively. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done.

Writers, programmers, scientists, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone. When you try to measure it, it looks like it takes an average of 15 minutes to start working at maximum productivity. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers — especially interruptions by coworkers — all knock you out of the zone. If a coworker asks you a question, causing a 1 minute interruption, but this knocks you out of the zone badly enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble.

Productivity depends on being able to juggle a lot of little details in short term memory all at once. Any kind of interruption can cause these details to come crashing down. For this example, lets put two programmers, Jeff and Mutt, in open cubicles next to each other in a standard Dilbert veal-fattening farm.

He could look it up, which takes 30 seconds, or he could ask Jeff, which takes 15 seconds. Jeff gets distracted and loses 15 minutes of productivity to save Mutt 15 seconds. So he looks it up.

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So now Mutt loses 30 seconds of productivity, but we save 15 minutes for Jeff. Do you use the best tools money can buy?

If your compilation process takes more than a few seconds, getting the latest and greatest computer is going to save you time. If compiling takes even 15 seconds, programmers will get bored while the compiler runs and switch over to reading The Onion , which will suck them in and kill hours of productivity. Debugging GUI code with a single monitor system is painful if not impossible. At my last job , the system administrator kept sending me automated spam complaining that I was using more than … get this … megabytes of hard drive space on the server.

Separated from the southeastern coast of Japan by over miles, the 2, or so residents of Chichijima receive just one daily ship: the Hahajima Maru, a small passenger-cargo vessel that ferries in a regular supply of goods and people from afar. For the most part, the waters in this remote part of the world are quiet.

But each winter, the seas swell with the symphony of hundreds of humpback whales eager to mingle with their mates—giving the researchers the chance to observe the effects of a single ship on the behavior of a wild population. The pristine nature of this locale stripped away other variables that could muddy the waters—other vessels, for instance, or inconsistent traffic.

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Most times there is noise from all directions. By placing two recorders in the waters near Chichijima, the researchers captured a series of whale vocalizations between the months of February and May Each day, they recorded one or two male humpbacks, amassing tracks of 53 soloists in total—half in the presence of the ship, and half without. If the vessel was present, it produced, at its loudest, about decibels of noise, comparable to the volume of a shotgun—and humpbacks seemed to shirk from its path, vacating the areas closest to the shipping lane.

The whales that remained within meters of the ship produced fewer sounds overall. Humpback whales rely on sound to communicate in the dark ocean waters. During their winter breeding season, males will sing for hours on end—but their serenades may be stifled by the sounds of passing ships. Photo Credit: Christopher Michel, flickr. Akamatsu had initially assumed that in the presence of the ship, the humpbacks would raise their voices or change the frequency at which they sang—both strategies that might enable whales to discern calls above the clang and clamor.

But, he says, perhaps this reticent response is an adaptive, energy-saving strategy. Vocal adjustments, after all, are exhausting. Even to meters away from the ship, the whales were still contending with a noise level of about decibels—roughly equivalent to a motorcycle or a raucous rock band. Share this song!

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