Technology from the Arab World

As Americans, we tend to learn history from a very Eurocentric perspective. We study the ancient world, the middle ages, and then move through the history of Europe. We may briefly learn about Asia or Russia, but rarely do we dig deeper into non-European history, which is truly a shame. While our European ancestors were trudging through the Middle Ages, the Arab world was a flourishing haven of technology and science. In fact, some of their technology is still alive and well today. Three technologies in particular from the Arab world have greatly impacted modern society. While some may argue that these technologies were initiated earlier by the Greeks, they were certainly mastered by Arab scholars.

One of the most well-known technologies of the Arab world is algebra. While it may be hated by many students, algebra is without question the basis for all complex math. Without algebra, none of the technologies that exist today would have ever been created – it is truly among the most influential branches of mathematics in history.

A second technology, the astrolabe, also holds great significance. While most modern Americans are likely unfamiliar with the astrolabe, it is one of the most amazing computers of the ancient world. An astrolabe is a tool allowing the user to see a chart of the night sky. But it’s utility goes beyond that – you can use it to determine the angle to any star, the sunrise and sunset times, the current time based on star position, or for navigational purposes – among other uses. In fact, some scholars have indicated that you can use an astrolabe to solve over a thousand different problems. Today, astrolabes are usually only found in museums. But for hundreds of years, they were used for navigation, to better understand the night sky, and so much more. Without tools like the astrolabe, the age of exploration would have been far more difficult.

Cryptography serves as a third influential Arab technology. Indeed, basic cryptography has been known far back into the ancient world. The Muslims, however, took it to the next level. While Muslim scholars were copying the Koran, they were also paying attention to how many times each letter was used. This counting of letters ultimately led to cryptanalysis and even changed the course of European history.  Ever hear of Mary, Queen of the Scots? She was executed because of Arab codebreakers who were centuries ahead of European cryptographers.

While I could undoubtedly find countless other technologies from the Arab Golden Age, these technologies stand out above the rest. During a time of immense trial and despair for Europeans, Arabs were pulling world history into the next chapter through the efforts of their brightest minds! Though many will look in awe at the technology of today, I would urge others to take the time to look into the rich history of technology around the world. The technological innovations of the past often hold just as much excitement!

App Developer Woes

I started my company about 5 years ago by writing Android applications. It started out pretty simple by converting a simple website I wrote long ago into an application for ham radio calculations. That app went on to become one of the most popular ham radio applications on the Google Play store. Seeing how popular the app had become, I decided it would be smart to determine how I would monetize the application. And this is where things get difficult for app developers. As an Android user, I like to find free apps. And, like just about everyone else, I don’t particularly like ads. Ultimately, I made the choice to have a paid (ad free) version as well as an ad supported version. Let me be the first to say that I’m not getting rich from my apps. In fact, I make very little even with over 250,000 downloads across all my apps.

As an app developer, it’s very hard to find the time to make high-quality apps that you know you’ll never really see anything out of. If I spend 40 hours on an app, even if I only say my time is worth $10 / hour, it would take $400 just to break even. That can take literally years to generate in ad revenue. (I’m going to assume that – like the overwhelming majority of apps out there that mine isn’t going to all of a sudden become the most popular app in the play store.)  What’s even more challenging is when you have negative reviews attacking your free app or when users email you expecting you to provide hours of support for an app that – if you’re lucky – they may pay you $1 for.

I love writing apps, and I have a few more planned for later this year. However, I would encourage users to deliver feedback or requests with a constructive tone and appreciation, especially considering the circumstances surrounding many app developers. Remember, the majority of apps out there are developed by indie developers whose time is tied up with another job to provide income, so they are often unable to implement new features on the fly. Requests rooted in appreciation and a positive attitude make the world a better place for users and developers!

Ads on the Moon?

When I was a child, I had the same dream as every other child in my generation – the dream of being an astronaut! Indeed, since the dawn of time man has been fascinated with space. The calendar month is based on the moon’s time to circle the earth; ancient religions included the moon, sun, and planets as gods; and even modern radio enthusiasts use the moon as a natural satellite for communicating with people on the opposite side of the planet. Among the earliest of movies ever made was A Trip to the Moon (1902) by Georges MélièsThroughout the centuries, man has been captivated by the beauty of the moon, the stars, and of everything else visible in the night sky.  The night sky has been an inspiration for art, music, poetry, folklore, religion, and just about every other realm of the human experience.

Yesterday, as I was reading the current issue of MIT Technology Review, I came across an article that mentioned putting ads on the moon. Now, I must start by saying that the article didn’t provide any details, but I was disgusted to see such a thing suggested. Imagine a future where lasers are used to project the Nike swoosh onto the moon or the Amazon logo is proudly displayed. Is the moon really nothing but a billboard for corporate use?

Of course, the problem of technology and nature is nothing new. For years there have been battles between people wanting wind farms and nearby landowners who don’t want their view polluted by turbines. Roads, water turbines, railroad tracks, oil pipelines, and countless other technologies threaten the natural beauty of the world we live in. Questions of who owns the land, waterways, and underground resources such as oil and coal are a big deal in the legal realm of land management. Is the moon the next frontier for such legal battles?

Who has the right to deprive mankind of our brightest muse? Are we really willing to destroy the beauty of the moon for a few dollars? I’m a capitalist, but some things are priceless and shouldn’t be destroyed for a quick buck. For me, the moon is one such object. Looking at the night sky to see the moon displaying the Pepsi logo seems like a hellish future I hope we can avoid.

For the record, I may be able to support using the moon to display the bat signal, but don’t tell my daughter – she’s a Marvel fangirl.

The Best Job Ever

Early in my career as a software engineer, an executive of the company I worked for told me that “nobody wants to be a programmer, it’s just something you do to put food on the table.” That particular comment has stuck with me for years. I’m not an easily offended person, but that comment seemed to have an underlying attack on my value as a human being. It suggested that I was doing undesirable work and that I wasn’t capable of finding a real job. The irony is, I believe I have the best job in the world. Writing software pays well, it’s mentally challenging, and tremendous fun.

When we talk to young people about work, we often tell them to follow their dreams – but that’s a really bad idea.  After all, neither the mortgage company nor the grocery store accepts dreams as payment. Instead, better advice is to find the sweet spot in life. What is that? The sweet spot in life is where your skills, your desires, the market, and money all meet. It’s the job you want to do, that has employment opportunities, and pays well enough to enjoy your life. For me, I absolutely love programming. It really is the best job ever. I found the sweet spot in my life, and I couldn’t be happier.

So, to that individual who said nobody want’s to be a programmer, you’re wrong. Very wrong. I wake up every morning and look forward to my job. I read about it in the evening. I code for fun. Writing software is my passion and I have never once been ashamed of what I do or thought of myself or my skills as undesirable.

Can you say the same about your job? Are you truly passionate about what you do? Did you manage to find that sweet spot in your life? I did and it has made all the difference!

Work in Progress

When most people think about DevOps, Continuous Integration (CI), or Continuous Deployment (CD) they think about tools like Jenkins or Bamboo. And, indeed, these tools are indispensable for rapidly moving software through the development pipeline. However, an even more rudimentary principle is required to truly enjoy the benefits of any CI/CD environment – limiting work in progress (WIP). Work in progress is the number of items that are currently being developed. The higher the number, the more difficult and time consuming deployments become. And, conversely, the lower of number of features in development, the lower the risk for the deployment and the more rapidly it can be deployed to live systems. Limiting the WIP to a small number – a single new feature or a couple of important bug fixes – ensures that you can get the changes tested and deployed in short order. This goes well with the ideals of agile development – quick sprints where a small number of items are completed – and ensures that focus is kept on the most important items. Once that sprint is complete, a new version can be pushed to end users. This ensures users have want they want, turnaround time is low, and bugs are kept to a minimum as changes are small and easily tested. This principle applies well beyond software. In fact, it was originally documented on factory floors. Creating products in small batches ensures that if there is a problem, it’s limited to a small batch and that the first shippable products are available more quickly than large batch processing. How does your company handle work in progress? A small number of items, or huge batches? Does it take forever to release a new version or to have a product ready to market? Consider the impact of limiting the work in progress to a small number and frequently releasing your software or product and how it could impact your time-to-market and ultimately increase revenue!

Setting the Standard

Today, I was reading about Les Brown – a well known motivational speaker and former member of the House of Representatives. One of the quotes that was attributed to him was “develop the habit of setting the standard that others will be measured by.” Those are great words to live by. When I started taking martial arts classes well over a decade ago, I trained hard to be the best I could be. Then, when it was time to test for black belt, I nailed it. In fact, I did so well that the way I did things became the standard way the school continues to test for black belt. When I attend classes, I still hear it mentioned that we do it that way because Mr. Gerlach did it that way. What a great sense of pride it brings to be the standard that everyone else has been measured by for the last decade.  But that idea extends well past our hobbies – it extends to everything we do. Do you set the standard of excellence at your workplace, or do you work just hard enough to not get fired? In marriage, do you set the standard for what a good spouse does? What about parenting?  When people look at you, are you an inspiration or a cautionary tale?

As a programmer, I want my code to set the standard of excellence for the organization I’m working for. As such, I spend time honing my skills, improving my knowledge, practicing my trade, whatever it takes to be the best of the best. Just like setting the standard for martial arts, I want to set the standard in writing good code. I want the next generation to look to my code as the yardstick that other projects are measured against.