I’m Old, Part XXVI: Don’t Feed Them After Midnight

At one point, I had the opportunity to work at a very small start up called Newfire. Actually, it was initially called Axial, but was renamed later in the cycle. It was an astounding team of engineers, albeit more male that I really liked, but such was life at start ups in the 1990’s. It was an astounding team. Any one person on the team could have been the anchor of any top-notch software engineering team and yet there were very few ego battles. It was probably because most of the core product engineers had their own particular specialties and did those jobs to the best of their abilities while simultaneously being grateful about not having to do someone else’s job.

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We were working on a high performance VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language) engine with the goal of making Quake performance for games in your web browser.

Today’s story has to do with a point when we were far along in the development process. We were working on a demo for upcoming trade shows and were running short on time. This meant long hours most every day.

What often happened was that we ordered dinner and working late into the evening to get things into line. At the time, I was responsible for a Java scripting engine. It was a nice design that made no distinction between single player and multiplayer network games. They all felt the same to the game engine. The engine had a component model for a lot of its features including a physics engine to handle how objects moved and collided. I didn’t have time for the details of that, so it was handed to Dave Springer, aka Cowboy Dave, who was working on an implementation of a Runge-Kutta integration engine to do the physics calculations.

For the demo game, we had interns from Cogswell College, Alan Blaine, Jeremy Krinit, Greg Lima, and James Frankle. They made a mock-up of a military vehicle for planetary assault which could drive around and fire rockets at targets and get shot at. There were problems in the physics engine/the use of the physics engine which caused the vehicle to suddenly launch itself up into the sky at such a height that the vague cloud background was enormous white squares on a blue background.

On this particular evening, our CTO, Marty Hess, couldn’t stay. He had a prior engagement. So he left Mike Pell in charge for the evening with the unfortunate instructions, “do whatever is necessary to keep the engineers happy” or something close to that.

Since this code involved the physics engine, which involved the scripting engine, we had all the interns, Cowboy Dave, Mike, and me. Mike got us dinner and after dinner, Mike asked if we needed anything else. Cowboy Dave piped up, “I could use some Knob Creek.” Mike ran out and got a bottle that came packaged with a couple glasses.

Cowboy Dave was an astounding coder. Great thinker, good problem solver. But easily distracted, and that only got worse when bourbon is in play and I think the interns had their share too. I didn’t. Whiskey/bourbon are on my “had that one bad experience; still can’t smell it” list.

Marty stopped by around 10:00 to find Cowboy Dave three sheets to the wind and in the middle of a bull session conversation. Marty was apoplectic. I don’t think he imagined that his off-the-cuff instructions would have turned into this. Oh well. We still eventually ended up with a solid enough demo, but not from that night’s code.

Coding and bourbon don’t mix.

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