on Nov 3, 2011
Heather and I are engaged. We plan to marry as soon as she’s done with school. I should probably leave this virtual worlds business and find something more stable.
Rick is honest with me about how things are going, and more than once he offers me the chance to gracefully bow out. He pays me money out of his own pocket when he can. I could bail out now and look for other opportunities with no hard feelings. I realize I’m probably doubling down when I should fold, but this work is so interesting that I can’t bring myself to walk away from it. This is what I’ve always wanted. Alphaworld can run on most home computers, it can connect people from all over the world, and it allows people to collaborate and build in real time. It can do all this, and it’s not even out of beta yet. This virtual worlds stuff is a huge frontier, and there are very few people working on this sort of thing.
For good or for ill, I’m going to stick around and see how this plays out.
In 1995, Alphaworld is officially released. According to Wikipedia, WI spent fifteen million dollars making Alphaworld. I’m sure they were expecting a massive surge of orders as the people of the internet jumped from webpages to web-worlds. I think there are less than a dozen sales. A few people are curious about this 3D internet idea, but nobody is ready to lay down the kind of money needed to support a project this big. Few people have the hardware and inclination to navigate 3D worlds, which limits the userbase, which limits the number of companies interested in building a presence here. The idea is years ahead of its time, and the business model is years behind the times.
The future of our little company is called into question. We are contractors working exclusively for a company that has every indication of imploding in the very near future.
Rick, with the help of some others, somehow brokers a deal where they buy Alphaworld from the struggling WI. I’m not privy to the deal and I have no idea how he managed to pull off something so audacious. We hire away the WI programmers and put them back to work, continuing development of the product they just finished. Suddenly we’ve got the artists and programmers all working together. Alphaworld is then renamed Activeworlds.
David has purchased Goliath.
It finally happens. Heather and I are married in January of 1997, just one month after she graduates from college. Some people might put marriage off until spring to avoid the abominable weather, but we’ve waited long enough. It’s a small ceremony. Less than thirty people attend.
Heather and I honeymoon on the Canadian side of Niagara falls. We are one of the last couples to see the place as a sleepy, slightly tacky tourist town. They’re in the process of building a casino here, and the character of the town will soon change forever. It’s bitter cold when we visit, and everything is frozen over. It doesn’t occur to us to take a single picture.
Back home, we settle in and get used to married life. Heather is substitute teaching. I get up in the mornings, pack her lunch, and then sit down and hammer away at online 3D worlds for ten hours. This workload is not demanded by my boss. It’s just that this work is more interesting than most leisure activities.
Three months later, Heather is pregnant. By the time we’ve been married nine months she needs to stop teaching and take some maternity leave. I start getting a regular salary from Activeworlds the same month she quits teaching.
I’m having the time of my life. My entire job consists of, “Shamus, we have a problem that nobody understands. Can you do something about it?” Then I go off and discover, look up, or invent a solution.
Another guy joins Rick in running the company. JP is a very practical businessman, dedicated to ideas like not spending money you don’t have and not investing in things which don’t have a visible return. This sounds like forehead-slapping obvious advice, but in the tech industry these are outlandish concepts. (Hence the coming dot-com bubble.) Over the years rival companies will explode onto the scene with great fanfare. They will burn brightly, but JP’s financial discipline and pragmatism will keep us solvent and healthy long after the challengers have flamed out, imploded, or faded from memory.
It’s now 1998. I’m a new father. For the last few years I’ve worked from home, but now Activeworlds is growing and the company is moving me to Boston to work out of our main office. Rick greets me at the airport. Since we began, we’ve gone from being a tiny art production contractor to a hot internet company. (This isn’t as impressive as it sounds. In 1998, all internet companies are hot.) This is our first time meeting face to face. We hug.
This experience has provided an important lesson: Business dealings have everything to do with the character of the person you’re dealing with, and almost nothing to do with what it says on the contract. Rick and I worked together for years without so much as a handshake to seal the deal, because we were both honorable and trusted each other. Over the years I’ll learn that contracts can’t save you from weasels, liars, cheaters, or morons. The best a contract can do is mitigate your losses when things go wrong. In my own dealings, I’m happy to sign a contract to make the other person comfortable, but I’ll never count on a contract to keep me safe. If I don’t trust someone enough to do business with them on the basis of their word, then I don’t trust them enough to do business on the basis of their word and a contract.
So goes my long adventure through the world of internet technology and 3D content. It says “developer” on my business cards, but I’m all over the map, filling gaps in our team. In the early days I design, code, and maintain our website. When we need art, I make art. I make texture maps. I program some in-house tools in C, and train a few people who eventually surpass me as 3D artists. When we need more programmers, I move programming full-time in 2001. I help migrate our million-line codebase from C to C++. I learn PHP, and MySQL. I learn about 3D graphics, client / server architecture, the Microsoft Windows API, Open GL, the Renderware graphics engine, a couple of 3D modelling suites, and a handful of scripting languages. I learn figure modeling so I can build animated characters. I invent a compression system designed specifically for 3D models. During the dot-com bubble I become a paper millionaire, and during the bust I go back to being a thousandaire. I write a particle engine and get to code a few lightweight game environments.
Beyond reading and simple math, I never use a single thing I learned in any school.
I spend about fifteen years doing nothing but learning and directly applying that learning to problem-solving. This is a deeply rewarding cycle for me. I could complain about a few events, and the dot-com bubble will turn out to be a painful time for me, but on the balance this is an exceptional job. I get to do what I love and stick with the same group of people for a decade and a half.
Despite the misery and disaster of my experience with public education, I’m skeptical when my wife comes to me and proposes homeschooling our three children. After all of those years of frustration and torment, I’m still perfectly willing to send my own children into the madhouse, because… well, that’s what everyone does, right? I mean, how will they learn if they don’t do school stuff? However, I trust my wife to know what she’s doing, and so we agree to have her homeschool the kids. At first we start out with formal curriculum, but as the years go by we begin to see just how little of it is necessary to the learning process. As our children grow and become knowledgeable, capable people, I begin to see that a vast majority of what we’ve come to understand as “schooling” is useless cruft that is unrelated to the process of assimilating knowledge.
In 2006, I begin this blog, which launches a second career for me as a writer.
If you’re thinking of commenting on the homeschool thing, I’d encourage you to hold off until tomorrow. I’m going to wrap this series up with some final thoughts on education.