I have enjoyed many projects. The thrill of discovery is divine. So my life is dedicated to the pursuit of building what is or can become beautiful. And I've had to stay scrappy in order to survive. Can't build the beautiful stuff if you die.
When computers were tools for playing games, life was different. The game was World of Warcraft or Runescape, where I spent years - literal years of time - building methods to trade bank notes representing millions of uncooked lobsters or working with 24 other players deep into the night to defeat large enemy bosses.
Then we would make our own worlds by cloning the software and running it on our own computers and make adjustments to the rules to make it easier or harder where we saw fit. So then this became the main game. And secondary games involved projects like FibonacciMath.com, where I thought we could make millions by making the only site dedicated to the work of Fibonacci (Leonardo de Pisa) and running ads. It didn't work. Old Link.
Then we started selling T-Shirts, duct-tape wallets, a creation called "Hyper Juice" which contained enough sugar for an adult for a full week. I kept molding raspberries in my locker and charged people a minimum to see them, and if the minimum was met before end of day, they would be kept in the locker for another day. I signed up for Commission Junction and sold Bosley Hair Treatment - a solution for balding men - for a couple weeks and made $100. Money was always something that would let us start a bigger and more fun project. And in these days, sticks of RAM and money was the same: so our game servers we hosted could support more people without crashing.
And then one day in 7th grade choir class, my friend Eileen came in with what she called an iPod. But it didn't look like an iPod. It had a computer screen on it. It was the iPod Touch. She flipped the device horizontally and dragged her finger across the screen, through the art of music albums. I was caught entirely off guard. I had never seen an animation like that before: following the finger so well. I was in awe. "How real" I thought. (I learned much later that what I saw was called Skeuomorphism, a framework for design that Apple had mastered.)
And my life changed by the end of the school day. I was certain that I had seen something special hours earlier in choir and it became the most urgent that I figure out how to build something like that or at least try to understand how someone else did. All I needed was an iPod Touch. But I was not able to convince my parents to purchase this for me. So I became quite angry and decided to get the money anyway. And I had known duct-tape wallets or lemonade wouldn't produce enough cash. So I went with my Mom to Costco, bought large cases of Stride gum, sold them at school, making nearly $250 in profit in 2 weeks. The school suspended me and made me promise to stop selling to other students, but I had made enough.
So I packed all the dollar bills and quarters into a poker chip case, went to the Apple Store with my Dad (he used to live right above one), and told the woman working what I wanted. It was just a few days before Christmas so the store was packed. When the woman rang me up, and I pulled out the poker chip case and showed her all my cash, she became very curious. I told her the story about the gum and what I saw in choir a couple weeks earlier and what it meant to me. What she did next was something I would never forget.
This woman got up on a chair in the Apple store, commanded the attention of every single employee and customer, and announced to them that "James here sold gum at school so he could buy an iPod Touch so he can learn how to make an app." And everyone in the store started cheering and celebrating for me. I was shocked! I shook at least a dozen hands attached to smiling adult faces on the way out that day. It was surreal. It was a powerful moment, the universe whispering to me "trust yourself."
And that was the beginning of my life when Grown Up labels like "computer programmer" started to pull at my developing identity.
It took me at least five years to learn how to write software decently well. In my final high school, in a place called Vermont, I learned that "I have" Dyslexia and ADHD. That was relieving in a world where intelligence is your grades in school. I might not be a dumb bag of rocks after all, just an impatient one with perceptual difficulties.
Here's a condensed list of what I was able to make with so much help from all sorts of people:
- Minecraft Direct built and sold Minecraft Multiplayer as a service. We ran servers for more than a million people. I would remember a few days after Christmas we'd get several thousand dollars in the mail of checks no greater than $25 each from kids who just got their Christmas money and wanted a server.
- Data visualizations of senate voting data to tell who the "real hypocrites" are, who votes against their party the most, and more: Github Link.
- An iOS game called Pipe Bots (video below)
- An app for sending and receiving love called The Collective, started by the CEO of StumbleUpon
- An app for joining clans of other mobile games
- An app that allowed making and receiving anonymous payments
- A group dating app (press)
- A children's game about a bear on a unicycle on a tree
- A basic linear algebra library: GitHub
- A tool that would determine your unique identity based on how you held your smartphone. It detected unique micro-movements in your hands to identify you, as an attempt to replace passwords.
- A pretty-mosaic-style-blur in Objective-C: GitHub
- Projects with awesome clients like GasBuddy or Microsoft
- The fastest HTTPS replacement, with additional security features, on iOS. More at caffei.net. We built this after seeing clients choose performance over security. So we made it a drag and drop. Put it into your app and everything loads 3x faster. It was used by Upwork.com, CDNetworks, and more. Reaching more than 10 million end users. I implemented MessagePack in Swift without using Foundation, created a custom forward and reverse proxy server in Swift that would translate our binary protocol back and forth between HTTP/S, so that we didn't require customers to do any server side integration. But we did have to situate Mac Minis in strategically located data-centers so the majority of distance the packets travel (from client to origin server) in miles is occupied with our protocol, and only the last mile using whatever standard. One small component of this I discussed at a conference (video below).
- I published articles on stocks I was interested in (like this one) until I lost $60,000 of liquid net worth on a Friday afternoon. Nineteen at the time, with a few thousand remaining, I was crushed. Though I do know that people who took my advice, even if I didn't always take my own advice, made more than $10 million on that same stock after reading my article. (You can see me still rationalizing all the time I spent as being valuable.) I vowed to focus entirely on creation instead of redistribution of other people's creations. I was never more struck with the fleeting nature of money or danger of feckless risk. Remember what I said about earlier about what happens when I forget beauty? Money can be a great beauty-forgetter.
- I audited several courses at MIT and the Harvard Kennedy School and became friends with the professors: 6.034, 6.803, and 6.833 at MIT. I had pineapple pizza with Marvin Minsky in Brookline. RIP. And classes on digital policy and privacy at HKS. RIP Winston.
- I had a chance encounter with a lovely creature at a professor's dinner party who, six years later, has become my wife. I like to say that this was proof of God -- a divine wink in my direction -- even though no religious person I know considers me religious :)