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Category: Life

The sedentary life of the software business

By , November 2, 2012 6:26 pm

Software is great isn’t it? Configurable, flexible, modifiable, bend it to any shape you want. In short it’s very very useful. It also causes you to tear your hair out from time to time, but that seems to be par for the course.

But the way we produce software generally involves a lot of sitting down. A few folks have gone for standing desks, but I’m not convinced that is good for you either (your body is designed for movement, not standing in one place for any length of time). Sitting in one place is also not brilliant, but it can and should be less damaging than standing.

So if I’m sitting down a lot of the time there are some consequences.

  • The first is that you are not doing any activity that will keep you physically fit.
  • The second is a lack of activity, so you won’t burn as many calories as someone with a more active job.
  • The third is that if you’re desk, chair and monitor are not setup correctly you run the very real risk of physical injury and pain, in the form of Repetitve Strain Injury (RSI).

Physically Fit

To counter your lack of physical fitness due to the nature of software engineering being a desk bound activitiy you’ll need to do some physical exercise. Due to my history with RSI I have injuries that I need to work out, I’ve adapted my swimming style to emphasize stretching (which means I don’t have to do all the physiotherapy exercises for 20 mins 3 times a day).

But if swimming isn’t your thing, you can run, cycle, go to the gym, badminton, tennis, squash, fencing. There are lots of sports to choose from, although I think the raquet sports are probably not a good idea as if you’ve got any wrist related RSI problems (carpal tunnel etc) then you’ll want exercise that doesn’t involve hitting things and the strain going through your wrist.

As a general rule I recommend exercise in the evening. All sporting world records are set in the late afternoon or evening. The thinking behind why this is so is that the body has warmed up and relaxed when you’ve been awake that long, whereas in the morning your body is not so ready to perform. Now I’m not expecting you to be trying to set world records, but it seems to me if it’s true for top atheletes then a simmilar affect will also be in place for anyone else working out.

I know some people recommend exercise in the morning and they say it wakes them up and envigorates them for the day. I find that incredible, I’d expect to be worn out and sleepy, certainly by the afternoon if I’d burnt a lot of energy first thing. But hey, everyone’s physiology is different, so experiment, find out if you prefer morning or evening and go with it (don’t fight your body’s natural rhythms).

Lack of Activity

To counter the lack of activity you can exercise before and after work.

What about at work? Well you can choose to take the stairs rather than the elevator. I made this choice every day (to go up and down 3 floors) for the nearly 3 years I worked at SolidWorks R&D in Cambridge. I could never understand anyone using the lift, and when you did see people using the lift, almost invariably they were severely overweight and unfit. It seems a no-brainer to me, but clearly not their priority.

You can also choose to cycle to work rather than drive (easier said than done depending where you live). Or park some distance from work and walk the rest (I used to park 1 mile from SolidWorks and walk the rest – mainly because in town parking was £10/day ($15)).

You can also get a device to help you monitor your exercise level. This year at Business of Software 2012 Noah Kagan asked the audience if anyone had a FitBit. Quite a few hands went up. I confess I don’t have one but I’d been out for a meal with Trevor Lohrbeer and Levi Kovacs on Saturday evening before the conference they had both sung the praises of FitBit and both were wearing theirs.

You can also set timers to ensure you get out of your chair on a regular basis. Maybe walk the long way to the kitchen/vending machine. I seem to remember Noah Kagan talking about the games he plays at his office to get his FitBit count up. Sorry I don’t have a reference for this.

Repetetive Strain Injury

Repetetive Strain Injury is also known as Work Related Upper Limb Disorder (WRULD) in the USA. WRULD incorrectly characterises any injuries as being work related and also upper limb only, neither of which is correct. Repetetive Strain Injury is the correct term.

RSI is a very real risk to you if you type a lot (if you’re a software developer, yes you do type a lot). I’m not going to go into detail about RSI here as I’ve already written about this subject on the Object Media website.

Living your life

You can also choose to deliberately do some activities that business and money gurus such as James Caan and Ramit Sethi would advise you to spend money on (because your time is more valuable than the money). An example would be mowing the lawn, or taking garden waste to the recycling centre (or landfill, as the case may be).

They are of course right, your time as an entreprenuer is more valuable than the money it would cost to hire someone to cut your grass or take the waste to the rubbish tip. But spending money can’t make you physically fit or burn calories for you. Only exercise can. I’ve found that often the things like gardening tasks exercise different muscle groups than your chosen exercise regime. So you get a double bonus because you are improving what was being ignored.

I also happen to hate being physically unfit. When you’re unfit it’s harder to do things. Everything seems like a chore or is impossible. But when you are fit they are easy or actually attainable. As such I occasionally like to do manual labout tasks such as these.

I also happen to feel that you have a better idea of what people doing manual labour for (when you do hire them) are going through if you do it yourself sometimes. Very easy to forget what it’s like. Once you’ve lost touch with that you can be rather unreasonable with people. That isn’t nice.

Today I’ve been loading my car with all the garden waste from the front garden and the Cherry tree I cut prior to Business of Software. It took two trips, I got filthy, I did a load of exercise. And spent some time outside. Not thinking about software. Sometimes you are better to be away from the screen. Did the business keep running? Of course 🙂

I often find that cutting the grass is one of those occasions when I zone out and the next thing I know I’ve solved some important problem and amazing the grass has also been cut. And particularly aware of doing either activity.

Just to be clear I’m not saying you should do every task, I’m just saying why not choose to do some of them rather than always pay people to do them for you. You can can’t buy fitness.

Anyway, something for you to think about. Sure you can outsource all your manual labour tasks if you want, but you’ll just have to spend more time doing exercise later.

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Banks are clueless on online security

By , February 14, 2011 3:21 pm

During November I met Dave Collins from Software Promotions. I saw him presenting two talks on effective Adwords marketing and common mistakes you can make and how to avoid them. Articulate, well informed. So much so that I decided to hire Dave to do some work for Software Verification.

Dave wanted to be paid using direct bank transfer. Not a problem except that I have been really reluctant to do online banking because I’m concerned that no matter what steps you take there is always the potential for something nasty to be on your machine waiting to snatch you bank details etc. Maybe a tad a paranoid I agree, but that is how I work. But let us be clear on the risk, if you get hacked for online banking that is your entire account at risk, not the same thing as if your credit card details get comprimised. Its the sort of thing that could put you out of business. Hence my paranoia.

Live CD
Anyway I decided I would do it using a Linux live CD, that way the only risk is the Linux CD or a hacked bios. Unlikely to be a dodgy Linux CD as so many people get the same image. Having your machine’s bios hacked is also one of the more unlikely circumstancs to happen to you. An alternative scheme, which Joanna Rutkowska uses is to use virtual machines with snapshots and restore the VM snapshot on a regular basis.

Online Banking
Like most people I’ve banked with the same bank for years, both personally and for business. I started with Midlands bank but after some dreadful service when I was a student I moved to National Westminster Bank and have been with them ever since (except for a short spell living in Scotland where Natwest had no presence).

Given the nature of what banks do you would expect them to take security seriously. I did.

Account Number
So imagine my surprise when I found that the online banking account number for the new online banking for the business was DD-MM-YY-xxxx, where xxxx is a random value. Further investigation turns up that xxxx is actually the count of the number of people that have the same birthday. So if xxxx is 0185 then you are the 186 person with that birthday.

So what is the problem with the above? Given that so many security systems ask you for your date of birth when you need to talk to a human I’m astonished to find the date of birth as the first 6 digits of the account number. When I asked about this the answer given by the staff member was “Only you know your date of birth.”. Yes, I’m not kidding. She was sincere in that opinion. She didn’t seem to realise that, even without the Internet, social media, etc, your date of birth is available in many places.

What on earth is wrong with account numbers that start at 0 and increment by one for each new customer? Completely arbitrary, unguessable and does not leak any information (birth date). I guess something as simple as that is too complicated.

Conclusion
Anyway, that is enough for me, If you can’t get something as simple as an account number right what else are you going to get wrong?

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Give up caffeine, improve productivity

By , August 5, 2010 9:12 am

Give up caffeine, improve productivity – yes I am serious.

Just recently I found out that I was allergic to several things, one of them being caffeine.

My history with caffeine

I really like tea, but dislike coffee, having announced to my mother at age 5 that I didn’t like coffee. Seems to have stuck with me. I drink tea with no milk and have done for years. A little bit of sugar to take the edge off the black tea and its fine. And I loved the caffeine. I could never see the point of caffeine free tea. Until I found out I was allergic to caffeine.

Giving up caffeine

At the same time, I had noticed that a lot of the time I was distracted, unable to relax, always casting about for something to do. Granted, folks with active minds are like this a bit, I guess thats why I like to write software. But this was different, even when too tired to write software I’d still be this coiled spring.

Then I gave up drinking caffeine in any drinks. Apparently if you drink more than a few cups of tea a day you are classed as addicted to caffeine. I guess you could say I was easily addicted to caffeine. According to Wikipedia there are caffeine withdrawal symptoms but I can’t say I noticed any.

A few days after I stopped drinking caffeinated tea, my distracted state of mind went away. Easier to focus on software, on bugs, reading books, watching movies, whatever the thing was.

Caffeine also affects your blood sugar levels, causing a boost. This in turn can lead to up and down swings in your blood sugar with a possible change of mood.

The problem with energy drinks and software

Its not uncommon to see physically active people consuming lots of calories, either in the form of food or drink. Or even drinking an energy drink which may also contain caffeine. That is fine because the physical activity will consume the calories and burn them leaving your blood sugar levels relatively normal.

However if you are sitting at your desk (or in your car) then an energy drink or high carbohydrate food is just going to put a big spike into your blood sugar to which your body will have to react with some insulin to regulate it. Not so long later (hour or two) you’ll feel lethargic as you get the counter effects of the insulin kicking in.

As such I’ve never understood the idea of consuming energy drinks if you are writing software – you are winding yourself up, and also setting yourself up for a blood sugar trough after the spike. If you are taking an energy drink so you can stay awake and code that is a sign you are too tired anyway. You should take 20 minutes out and have a short sleep. Drink half a pint to a pint of water before you go to sleep. It surprising how much this short break can help. The water is to rehydrate you while you sleep – tiredness is a sign of being dehydrated.

It is not uncommon for me to wake from a short nap with the solution to a problem and the also the correct approach to implementing the solution. Try it for yourself.

You can have a similar problem with food

The same problem with energy drinks applies to fast acting carbohydrate foods. Basically anything filled with sugar (energy bars, cakes, sweets…). You’ll get a blood sugar spike followed by a trough as your body overcompensates with insulin. These foods are great if you are active and on the go and need a boost but totally counter productive if you are not physically active (typing does not count!).

You will be much better served eating something that is more slowly processed by your body. Namely protein. Vegetable protein (beans, pulses) or meat protein, it does not matter which. Protein takes time for your body to convert into energy. As a result the energy is released in a much slower, more controlled manner, supplying you with energy without any blood sugar spikes or troughs.

What do I drink instead of caffeinated tea?

I now drink the redbush caffeine free tea, various herbal fruit teas and water. I drink water because a 5% drop in your body hydration leads to a significant drop in your ability to concentrate.

Recap

  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants. More focus, less distractedness, better productivity.
  • Drink water, do not work dehydrated.
  • Drinking caffeinated drinks will dehydrate you – caffeine is a directic.
  • Keep your blood sugar even, improve your productivity.
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Are you a First Aider? Something to think about.

By , June 1, 2010 2:00 pm

This weekend I attended a music convention in the UK.

Something happened on Sunday morning that made me re-assess if I should be a qualified First-Aider.
This post isn’t about software, but all the same it most likely applies to your workplace and quite possibly your private life.

What happened on Sunday? A gentleman I’d be talking with the evening before had a heart attack. People rushed around the campsite and surrounding buildings shouting “Medical Emergency! If you are a doctor, nurse or first aider please go to the main hall immediately”. I was in the campsite at the time. Your first thought is “What has happened?”, followed by “I’m not trained, I can’t help”. It was at that point I knew that I could do nothing to help whoever was in need of help. Its a horrible feeling. You don’t know who is ill, you most likely know who they are and you can’t help.

As it happened there was a doctor (a general practitioner) on site as well as a first aider that had done his training 20 years earlier. An ambulance arrived in short order and after some work resuscitating him they took him to hospital where he underwent appropriate treatment for the heart attack. Hopefully all will be well with him.

Over the remainder of the weekend over the course of various conversations it became clear that just about everyone had come to the same conclusion: Everyone really disliked the powerlessness of being unable to help and quite a few were considering getting themselves trained as a first aider so that they’d be suitably skilled should something happen again.

In the past I’d always been reluctant to consider getting qualified as a first aider. Not because I didn’t want to be nominated but more because I didn’t want to do the training. I can’t quite explain it – I think I had some embarrassment about the training you have to do with the dummy body. That and combined with the “it won’t happen near me” delusion – I deluded myself I’d never have any use for the training. How wrong I was.

Anyway, none of that matters now. I know if I’d be trained I could have helped and may have been of some assistance on Sunday. That would have counted. So I’m going to get some first aider training and encourage my colleagues to do so. How about you?

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