Programming, WildTools
and Depression

by Alfred Scott

This article appeared in the June 1997 Falco Builders Letter as part of "Goings On at Sequoia Aircraft"

All of you have spent many hours poring over the Falco drawings, often marveling at the detail and quality of the drawings. Over the years, I've probably spent at least 10,000 hours bending over the drawing board while producing these things. It's painstaking, slow work, and it's often physically painful as well because of eyestrain and back-aches.

Throughout this process, we have always had some sort of electronic devices around the office. First there were simply electronic, programmable Hewlett-Packard calculators. Then we bought an IBM System 6 word processor, a $20,000 machine the size of a desk with an integral daisy-wheel printer and a tiny six-inch screen on which you could see three lines at a time, and it also had a simple database capability for storing names and addresses.

To use it, you had to be trained by IBM, and I was never able to do the database stuff. On occasion, if I wanted to copy and paste a large section of text, I would get Jean Bowen to do it for me, and while the process was going on, I would retreat to my office in fear and hope the whole document would be preserved. I kept hoping that we could somehow use the machine for our drawings, but it was never to be.

We subsequently bought some Apple Macintosh computers and put them to work for word processing and the mailing lists. It was an easy-to-use machine with superior graphics, and I kept hoping that I would be able to do drawings on the computer and somehow use them with our construction manual. That was always the promise of the machine, but whenever I tried any of the programs, I was struck with the feeling of being defrauded-even when the programs were free, beta-test copies. While you could draw some things, there were always so many 'parts of the puzzle' that were missing.

Over the years, I bought, tested and looked at every CAD or illustration program I could find. In every case, they were always long on promise and short on delivery. You were always led to believe that somehow this program was the best, and that you could 'do it all' with the program. Yet when you actually tried to use it, you were left with a feeling of wanting to line every person at the software company against a wall and mow them down with a machine gun-so intense were your feelings at the distance between the promise, the possibilities and the actual thing that resided on your machine.

Frank Christensen, of Christen Eagle fame, was similarly interested in the subject of drawing on a computer. He bought an IBM FastDraft system and used it for some of the Eagle drawings and all of the Christen Husky drawings. When he moved to a Macintosh, he looked at all of the various CAD and illustration programs, and he settled on a program called PowerDraw-now known as PowerCADD-that was produced by a small family business in North Carolina. I became a beta tester for the software, later wrote some macros, and when they developed the ability to write your own external tools, I was the only one outside the company involved in the process.

We would make suggestions for improvements in the software, and I would write tools which would solve various problems, but in time it became evident that the little software company had neither the interest nor intention of refining the software to the point that it would become a really useful thing to have. Yet it contained an element of genius in the way the basic program worked, and it was clear that they were doing a lot of things very well.

To put it mildly, I finally threw up my hands and gave up on the idea of suggesting, cajoling or screaming at software companies. I did something which, in retrospect, was an act of madness and passion. I wrote my own.

Not the whole program, mind you, but I used PowerCADD as the base and wrote a complete set of drawing tools called WildTools which adds to the base program. I began by duplicating all of the basic drawing tools that come with the program, adding a minor improvement here, and another there. Over time, it became obvious to the coterie of CAD fanatics who hovered about the program that I was adding features at a faster rate than the software company, and people began making suggestions to me.

I would incorporate the suggestions and over a period of time, WildTools grew to an enormous stack of paper-now over 2500 pages of programming and larger than the base program. While many people were involved, Frank Christensen and I were the two principal co-conspirators, and in the process of working on this, I became aware of the enormous benefits of opening yourself up completely to criticism and seeing it as a friend of the product. Often wars would break out, and I would get screaming e-mail insults from people who felt strongly about something that I didn't yet grasp.

In programming, I found it easy to see the product that was something completely removed from myself, and I came to see the rain of insults and flame mail as a virtue. Whenever I'm on the receiving end of it, I always remind myself that criticism is a form of showing interest in a subject and that you can learn a lot more from your critics than you can from your good buddies.

WildTools began as a process of eliminating frustrations. When I began, I wanted to put my fist through the computer screen every ten minutes or so. But when we came out with the first version of WildTools a couple of years ago, the business of drawing on a computer was dramatically easier and all of the basic frustrations were gone. You could draw pretty much anything.

Then over the next year, I continued to add to the tools and somewhere in the process something magical happened. Everyone involved in the process describes it in essentially the same terms-that somewhere in the course of that year the business of drawing on a computer crossed a threshold. Drawing on a computer started to be simply wonderful. It became fun. People routinely report productivity gains of 25, 50 and 100% over the course of a day. Falco pilots and WildTools fanatics have in common the same sense of enthusiasm and haughty arrogance that no one else has what I have.

Then in February, I was working on an isometric drawing for the Falco brake system using WildTools, which has some specialized tools for isometric drawing. In some ways the process was easy and in other ways it was difficult, and I began to analyze why and how these things might be made easier. In this process, something 'snapped' in my brain, and I suddenly realized how to 'do 3D in a 2D program', and over the next three weeks I created the basics of WildTools 3D, a set of over 60 tools which makes child's play of drawing isometric and axonometric drawings.

But programming is an obsessive activity, and it involves long periods of intense mental activity. The ability is both a strength and a curse, and you spend entirely too much time living in your own head. As you get better at it, the more intolerant of error you become, and as you push yourself you become more difficult for others to deal with. In time, I was aware that I was becoming increasingly difficult, irritable and dismissive of other people. I would have flashes of anger, and it became difficult to sleep. At times I would wake up at 4:30 in the morning, tormented by some programming problem that was eating at my brain, and I would be at the office by 5:30 banging away on the solution-sometimes on Sunday morning.

During much of last year, I was aware that I was developing a low-grade depression problem, but I would bounce back by exercising and slowing down on the work. Then in early December, I found myself in deep trouble. I knew I was really burned out, and I felt completely aimless and hopeless. Nothing really interested me, and I began to drink more than I should.

I began to read articles about depression, and I started asking friends who had been through it about what they did, and what worked. Some were quite open about it, and others would talk about it only with their office door closed. I finally realized I was in a hole that I couldn't get out of on my own.

In some ways, men are their own worst enemies. It's difficult to admit weakness, and men routinely drown without calling for help. We're supposed to be 'John Wayne', and tough enough to take care of ourselves. If we have a problem with our hand, we'll readily go to a hand doctor and say "fix it". No problem with stomach, foot, lungs or liver. But our brain is the most important organ in our body, yet it's difficult for a man to walk into a psychiatrist's office and ask for help.

But that's what I did, and it's been a life-changing experience. There's something wonderfully empowering about admitting that you can't do it all yourself-you start picking the people who will help you.

At the outset, I knew little about depression, but it's a very common malady. At some point in their lives, depression hits one out of every four women, and one out of every eight men. It can occur for any number of understandable reasons such as a death in the family. The chief causes in women are hormonal (typically after childbirth) or low self-esteem that rises out of a lack of appreciation of the enormous burdens of child-rearing. In men, the typical cause is from excessive work, which was the case for me.

But whatever the cause, the effect is that there is an organic, chemical change in the brain. Often mental illnesses are a mental manifestation of a chemical problem. That's the case with manic-depression, and every mother knows what will happen to her children if she lets them have too much sugar. There's a chemical in the brain called serotonin, and depression is when you don't have enough of it. You become irritable, ornery, exasperated with other people, listless and sink into dispair. Brainwashing is nothing more than stress-induced depression, and then they have putty to work with. If it goes too far, you have a 'nervous breakdown' in which your nervous system shuts down completely.

And what's ironic is that it's one of the most treatable maladies around, 65% of cases are cured by medication alone, and it rises to 85% when the treatment includes some counseling-simply talking about how this happened to you and how you can avoid it in the future. There are a wide range of medications, Zoloft, Prozac, Luvox, etc., and they all work to increase the levels of serotonin. My doctor put me on Luvox and that night I slept like a baby and when I woke up I hadn't felt better in 20 years.

I've been on the stuff for about 6 months now, and I will not work nights and weekends anymore. I sleep like a baby, have much less interest in alcohol, don't have flashes of anger, and generally feel like a real human being again. The sun is shining, even on rainy days.

You begin to see your former self in a different light, and it's not always a pretty picture. I now realize this is a problem that's been 20 years in the making, and I had the problem for much longer than the past year. In some ways, it's like waking up from a 20-year drunk, and you look back at some of the things you've done with a sense of wonder, and others with a sense of shame.

Some people can hardly bring themselves to talk about this sort of thing, but I don't care who knows. I suspect there are many of you who are reading this who have been through the same thing, or are going through it now, and I hope reading this will help you deal with the problem.

It's easy to spot the symptoms of a glassy redness in the eye and a tendency to snap at your spouse. What made it easy for me was the realization that this is a problem of chemical balance, like getting the pH of your pool right, and when you get your head clear, you can get a lot more work done in the course of a day, and you have a much better relationship with everyone around you.

What the heck, all of you have known I had a crazy streak all along-if not, you wouldn't all be building a Falco! But I thought you might be interested in hearing a bit of how the Falco plans have led to this other activity. With this newsletter, we're enclosing some literature on WildTools and PowerCADD, and if you want to do some drawing on a computer, I can assure you that you need to look no further.

 

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