Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scary Stories from the Interwebs eBook

In total, I have now collected 72 stories of a person's most frightening experience. Since 72 scary stories would probably be too much adventure and not enough engineering for this blog, I have collected those stories into a nicely formatted PDF that you can download from my publisher.

You can read samples of these stories in these previous posts:

It Came From the Interwebs: the Mechanical Turk Tells Scary Stories

Scary Stories From the Interwebs: Part 2

You can download the book here: Get Scary True Stories from the Interwebs

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Scary Stories From the Interwebs: Part 2

HaspIf you are easily disturbed, please skip this entry. It features a terrifying story.

Here is another scary (but true, I'm told) story I collected using Mechanical Turk. I find it quite creepy.

You can find the previous stories here. Thanks to everyone who responded to my surveys. I really enjoy reading the responses and hope to get more.

What is your gender? Male

Write two or more paragraphs about the most frightening thing to happen to you. "When I was 13 years old, I was home alone listening to music on my stereo via headphones. My mom and step-dad were out having dinner/date/movie night. It was winter, so it was dark outside even though it wasn't that late. I was sitting on the living room couch, and out of the corner of my eye I saw something in the hallway directly to my right. I turned to see what it was and froze.

There, hanging in the hallway, was an wispy ghost form of a human. I could see the head and arms and chest and then it gradually faded into the darkness of the hallway floor. I screamed and ran to the TV room at the end of the hall. To this day I do not know why I decided to run through the area where the ghost was hovering. I slammed the door to the TV room, turned on all the lights in the room, turned on the TV all the way up, and flopped on the couch with an afghan over my head.

As I lay there crying, I could hear above the noise of the TV the sound of dishes breaking in the kitchen. It sounded like someone was throwing them up against the wall. I do not know how long this lasted. The next thing I remember is my mom and step-dad coming home and pounding on the locked TV room door. They were scared for me and did not know what was going on. I told them what had happened. I was shaking all over.

My mom forced me to leave the room and come to the kitchen. I was sobbing. She showed me that all was well in the kitchen and nothing had happened. This was my first experience with the spirit world. It would not be my last."

Is there anything else we should know about the story or being scared? "Since this time, I have had multiple experiences with the spirit world. Also, after my step-dad left for the evening (we were living in two different houses at the time), my mom told me she believed me. She too had experiences with the spirit world."

Do you have any feedback for this HIT? "Fun to share my story. Thanks!"

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Joel on Software MBA: Peopleware

SunfishNot long after I graduated from college, I stumbled across a book which explained exactly why my employer's quarterly performance reviews felt so frustrating and useless. The authors of Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead went to great length to demonstrate that performance reviews were worse than useless.

When I told my supervisor about my discovery, her reaction surprised me. Rather than being interested in the book or the findings, she was totally ambivalent. If anything, she seemed to believe more strongly in the value of performance reviews. The reviews made sense to her. It didn't matter that there was research and data indicating otherwise.

I suspect that Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams* falls into a similar category: books big companies are immune to. Having read Peopleware for my virtual Joel on Software MBA, I'm confident that the book's ideas would work great. I'm sure Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood agree -- they advise managers** to staple Peopleware to their face.

Like Abolishing Performance Appraisals, Peopleware resonates with me, but doesn't mesh well with the status quo. This sort of book would interest and inspire the engineers, but -- at large corporations -- ultimately let them down: most managers couldn't implement the suggestions if they wanted to.

For instance, about 58 of the 174 pages concern the work environment. If you work in the typical large office, this third of the book will explain how you couldn't design worse conditions for productivity. Cubicles? Noise? Interruptions? You might as well have your developers code from the local Jiffy Lube. Think of the money you'll save on office space and free Folgers coffee!

Peopleware explains why Joel Spolsky went to such great lengths to give his developers Bionic Offices, complete with windows and closing doors. Good luck convincing your typical corporation to give their engineers offices with windows. They'll have all sorts of excuses explaining why offices are a perk for management, cost too much, or don't allow for proper teamwork.

Aside from environmental issues, Peopleware addresses how to motivate developers, hire the best people, retain them, build awesome teams, and fight counter-productive bureaucracy. In other words, it's more about the engineers (and sociology) and less about technology.

This might seem like an indirect approach to productivity. It doesn't involve bossing people around, demanding long hours, or hiring consultants. You won't find justifications for treating your engineers like factory workers, buying fancy tools, or flying to exotic locations. Instead, it advocates making engineers happy and simply making productivity possible. Psychology and sociology do the rest of the work.

Unless you work at a very progressive company, Peopleware will have you constantly fighting bureaucracy, trying to fix the office environment, and struggling to make time so you can have conversations with your team. Worse, your peers probably won't understand or appreciate what you are trying to do.

Ultimately, you may find it easier become an entrepreneur and start your own people-friendly and productivity-friendly company. But maybe that's the point.

* I'm reviewing the first edition of the book, but there is a second edition of Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition) available as well. You can help me and my publisher by purchasing from these links. In association with Amazon.
** Peopleware concerns the field of software development, although I believe it applies equally to other engineering fields. It probably applies to just about any intellectual and creative effort, especially those requiring teamwork.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

It Came From the Interwebs: the Mechanical Turk Tells Scary Stories

Devil's BallIf you are easily disturbed, please skip this entry. It features true stories of actual humans who found themselves in frightening and terrible situations.

I have vivid memories of reading scary stories in bed as a child. I would lay in bed holding a book under my lamp, the rest of the room lost in strange shadows. As I became more and more involved with the story, the shadows would take on a sinister appearance.

Is that a ghost in my closet, or just dirty laundry? Is that a murder's eyes, or just a reflection off a window? Logically, I knew that I was just on edge from the story, but that didn't lessen my fright.

Despite my fear, or perhaps paralyzed by it, I often continued reading my stories late into the night. The terror was exciting and fun, but maybe just because I knew it was irrational.

In the spirit of Halloween, I used Mechanical Turk to request real-life scary stories from the internet. Like the books I read as a child, some of the responses feature supernatural encounters, while the others involve threatening, but otherwise more ordinary seeming circumstances.

Unlike my scary novels, these stories are true -- as far as I know. I can't rule out the possibility that a story was invented, nor the possibility that the writer misinterpreted the events. Maybe that ghost really was a sheet drawn down an invisible string. Perhaps the light switch wasn't flipped all the way when the author was plunged into darkness. And maybe that man trying to break in just mistook the place for his own house. Whatever helps you sleep at night.

Thanks to the Mechanical Turk workers who shared their personal scary stories! I hope your future frights are fun, not serious.

Here are two samples from the 40 I have received:

What is your gender? Female

Write two or more paragraphs about the most frightening thing to happen to you. "My husband and I had moved to Northern Virginia, and were settling into rented rooms. Strange, odd things began to happen, that we dismissed initially. Over a period of two months, things progressively got stranger and creepier. It culminated one night in August. My husband and I had dozed off reading in bed, with the lights still on in our room. The next thing we knew, we were both on the floor.

Something had pulled us out of bed, and threw us on the floor. Both doors to our room were closed- the interior door was closed, and the door leading outside was closed and locked from the inside. There was no one there but us. We both wound up bruised from hitting the floor, and we each had scratch marks on our calves where we had been grabbed. Those particular marks took a long time to heal, and they had a burning sensation that lasted for days.

Talk about scared? We were terrified. That night we grabbed some clothes, stuffed them into a bag and took off for a motel for the night. Two weeks later we moved. I have seen some spooky things, but I have never been so terrified in all my life. "

Is there anything else we should know about the story or being scared? "Fear is an odd thing. Neither one of us slept more than a few moments at a time until we moved, and there are times still that we wonder what happened, what "it" was, and will it happen again?"

Do you have any feedback for this HIT? "It will be interesting to see the other results. Thanks for the HIT!"

What is your gender? Female

Write two or more paragraphs about the most frightening thing to happen to you. "It was the middle of the afternoon my husband was in the living room checking his email, my children were playing in the living room. It was pretty loud in the house due to the kids playing. I had walked down the hall to change the laundry on my way back through to the kitchen I noticed a shadow on the walk-in porch. I stopped dead in my tracks staring through the window into the man's eyes that was standing on the other side of the door into my living room like he was just waiting for ample opportunity.

Absolute terror ripped through my bones, and I just let out this scream that could have woke the dead. My husband was like "What,What!" He had no idea what I had just seen. By the time I got the words out of my mouth the man on the inside porch had turned and ran, he was no where to be found.

I went down to the police station to file a report, and they showed me a bunch of different mug shots. Come to find out the man that had broken into my house and was waiting to do god only knows what was a homeless man. The police officer told me to make sure that I lock my doors at anytime I am home, and assured me they would look for the man.

They ended up catching the man a week later after he broke into another home. It still scares me to death to think of what could have possibly happened. People that break into your home when you are there and they know it are not in their right mind."

Is there anything else we should know about the story or being scared? "I would never have thought this would have happened in a small town in the country but it did."

Do you have any feedback for this HIT? "This was an interesting hit."