The day my software sparked massive IT disruption
When a software developer creates a true innovation, there’s always the chance that it will become a threat to established authority. This is what happened to me after the financial crisis of 2008 which also caused several companies in my field of astrology software to declare bankruptcy. I had no intention of creating such a fiasco and really at that time in my career I was just trying to survive and shortly after, I was homeless and living out of the back of my truck, but my work was at the epicenter of a dispute that caused world wide disruption to an important internet protocol. The crisis really started much earlier, but eventually reached a pinnacle on Oct 6th, 2011 (Strangely enough the day after Steve Jobs died).
The seed for this near-disaster was planted by Project Hindsight in 1994 when Robert Hand, Robert Schmidt and Robert Zoller (jokingly named the Robbites) started a long translation series of ancient astrological texts from Greek and Latin (mostly) manuscripts into English. This is a picture taken at the 2nd PHASE Conclave in Berkeley Springs, WV July, 1995:
At this conference, during Robert Hand’s talk he was showing a DOS program called CW3 (Chart Wheels 3) with the beginnings of Hellenistic astrological techniques already programmed that had not seen the light of day for almost 2000 years! DOS of course was a bit difficult to use on my Windows 95 machine. It was a 75 MHz Pentium system with 8 MB RAM laptop from EPS. I had no idea what that company abbreviation stood for but I nicknamed it “Extremely Poor Service”.
It was during one of Rob Hand’s talks that I realized that there was a great need to bring this into the Windows environment and expand on it. At the time I really wasn’t much of a programmer so I spent the next several months asking the dominant companies in the field (Astrolabe / Esoteric Technologies, Cosmic Patterns and Matrix Software) to include what we were finding in these texts while studying the Greek and Latin texts. I was pretty much universally ignored, so Robert Hand suggested that I take up Delphi (which at the time was owned by Borland, Inc) and do it myself.
After about 18 months of study which I did on the night shift while working at Elmcrest Children’s Center as a CCW, I released a program called Zodiacal Aphesis 1.0 which had all of Jean Meeus’s astronomical algorithms, particularly important were the algorithms for calculation of julian dates, Kepler’s equation of center, etc… It was released New Years eve, 1997 to a giant thud of no interest. Well Slaven Slobodnjak was happy but otherwise … crickets.
Then I got word from Michael Erlewine (CEO of Matrix Software) that Schmidt was working with a Matrix programmer to create “Windows on the Tradition 1.0”. I thought great, problem solved. I can go back to what I was doing before. So I waited for over 2 years through 1998 and 1999 and nothing was happening. Schmidt was having a conference in Cumberland, MD in June 2000, so I went and asked him what was going on. The coding was not going well and had serious bugs and never made it to market.
This news prompted me to take up programming again and I had an idea for a program that runs in the system tray and calculates planetary equinoctial hours, angles with sounds for alerts. This was my 2nd project known as Timaeus which was released Nov 3, 2000. At this point I still had a long way to go to have the kind of interface that Solar Fire had and draw all of the charts, but this is basically what it looks like:
Eventually in early 2003 I was ready to take on the project I had been dreaming of which was later named Delphic Oracle. There’s a spooky side story about this project that makes me wonder about the various facets of fate, but is beyond the scope of what I want to talk about here.
Version 1.0 of Delphic Oracle came out in late August 2003 and had a rudimentary square chart format with most of the Hellenistic time lord techniques programmed down to approximately 4 subdivisions. A couple of versions later the program was starting to really get noticed and by July 2005 I was getting calls from some of the top names in the field such as astrology.com on IT related issues.
This was a sort of perfect storm situation because there was a much bigger factor in all of this; the fact that Robert Schmidt had been making some major breakthroughs in understanding the Greek texts that I had been programming around. Schmidt’s work generated the groundswell of interest and Delphic Oracle became the beneficiary of all that interest because I had the only program at the time that did these techniques.
The companies I mentioned above realized that they got caught with their pants down and were all scrambling to make up for lost time. Several companies tried to hire me starting in fall 2005 until fall 2008. I was naive at first and got taken advantage of, but quickly wised up. Eventually Astrolabe, Inc. came along and tried to hire me on three separate occasions (spring 2006, at UAC May 2008 and again Oct 2008). By the time Gary Christen (CEO, Astrolabe) approached me, I was too wary to take any deals.
I had a great week at the PHASE Conclave that started Aug 14, 2006 and was at that point making about $1000/day during that conference. I ended the month with almost $8,000 in income and my expenses were high, but it was still enough so that I was seriously contemplating quitting my night shift job. Circumstances were becoming increasingly difficult at Elmcrest Children’s Center and I finally made the break from the company that I had worked at for over 21 years on Oct 17, 2006 and moved down to Cumberland, MD to work at Schmidt’s residence at 532 Washington St.
For about a year or so, things were going very well though many seemed to have the perception that I had more money than I really had. The reality was that I got into serious debt and it was the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis that threatened to take down the world banking system. Unbeknownst to me, one of the companies (Astro Computing Services) that created the ACS Atlas of locations and time zones (a dll that my software was dependent on) declared bankruptcy.
At that point, I realized I might no longer have access to the ACS Atlas. When I found out who acquired it (Astrolabe) I decided to travel to Brewster, MA to see what kind of a deal I could set up for my customers. That was when he made his final offer to hire. It was a time of great uncertainty. Was this just another attempt by another company to get their hands on my code? I felt like my arm was being twisted a little bit but the meeting was polite. The other problem was that Gary said that with the economy as it was that he couldn’t guarantee job security. So I left, but got an agreement to send my customers to Astrolabe and got a discount as well. So for the time being I thought that crisis had been averted.
This was when I was on the road frequently traveling between conferences such as NORWAC (North Western Astrology Conference), UAC (United Astrology Conference), and AFA (American Federation of Astrologers and NCGR (National Council for Geocosmic Research). After about April 2009, I was homeless much of the time because I sold my camper and between conferences which were for the most part in the western US, I stayed out in the desert.
About a year passed and I had a few complaints from customers trying to get the special deal on the ACS Atlas and I assumed that this was just because Astrolabe was massively backlogged and undermanned. What finally convinced me that the situation was something else was in my interactions with Paul Hysen from Australia in summer 2010 who also had a programming background. He had been given a week long run around on getting the ACS Atlas for Timaeus and was convinced that Astrolabe was trying to make me look bad on the offer. He was so fed up that he took it upon himself to format the Maxmind database of latitudes and longitudes and asked me to include it in Timaeus. No time zones he said, but better than nothing.
That was when I remembered the Olson time zone database that I had been looking at before going to visit Astrolabe in fall 2008. I realized at this point I had a replacement solution so I spent the next 3 months starting on Aug 18, 2010 working 16 hour days to finish a project that I called the Terran Atlas. It was the most intense period of coding I ever did. I managed to integrate the Olson time zone database into my Delphi programming environment using TClientDataSet and MyBase. It was released Nov 19th, 2010.
About five days later I got an angry email from Gary Christen saying that Astrolabe was taking legal action and that they wanted me to put up a disclaimer and take down the Terran Atlas explained in a long thread about Astrolabe v Olson.
I didn’t comply with any of those requests because the Olson time zone database is used on servers worldwide and saw no reason why I couldn’t use the same software everyone else was using (albeit practically the only one in competition with Astrolabe).
More time passed and finally I got notification that Arthur Olson and Paul Eggert, PhD took down their time zone database which at the time was hosted on a government website nih.gov (National Institutes of Health) due to the legal threat (see Astrolabe v Olson).
Astrolabe claimed copyright infringement saying that they “owned” time zone information which then got world wide ridicule. Strangely enough, this was the day after Steve Jobs died (Oct 6th, 2011). Businesses throughout the world were scrambling to mitigate the damage. It’s in use in UNIX / Linux servers throughout the world, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, IBM, HP, and the BSDs (Apple/Mac OSX, Juniper, Ipsilon/EMC), etc. Mobile apps which were just coming out at the time were using the Olson data as an input to secure mobile device encryption which would not work if the time zone isn’t correct.
The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) took up the case for the Olson time zone database and eventually the case was dismissed with prejudice against Astrolabe. Fortunately sanity prevailed, but for about a week it created real havoc in the tech world.
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