Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


Editor’s Pick
JUNE 24, 2009 9:15AM

Erik Naggum, R.I.P.

Rate: 27 Flag

A friend of mine died recently. His name was Erik Naggum. He lived in Norway. [ Erik Naggum, 1999 ] I knew him primarily via the net, through his professional reputation, his posts to internet newsgroups, and through occasional personal email on matters technical and philosophical. And we met once at a conference in person.

His death was probably of complications due to ulcerative colitis¹. But I want not to speak of his death, but his life.

He was a controversial soul because he was technically brilliant, and to put it much too mildly, he was not graceful in his handling of people he perceived as dumb or foolish. In point of fact, he would decide in a moment that he was talking to such a person and would become instantly excruciatingly intolerant of them, using harsh language that was at best colorful and at worst really outright mean. His posts online were a mix of cordial, thoughtful, and actively insightful prose with pointed barbs, laced with expletives and accusations that someone was insane or deserved to die. His tendancy to shift gears and go negative was not my favorite trait in him.

At the one conference where I spent time with him in person, by the way, he was pleasant, polite, and soft-spoken, and nothing like his online persona. I have read accounts by others that say the same.

In researching this, I ran across the following attempt to lighten the mood:

On Sat, 05 Jan 2002 00:29:41 GMT, Erik Naggum wrote:

> ... fucks like that frog-eating vermin ...
> ...Fuck you....
> ... Shit-for-brains ...
> ...that French fuck ...
> ...scumbags...
> ... the fucking retards...
> ...just go die...
> ...reeking French moron ...
> ...Get the fuck out of here...
> pricks ...
> ...pussballs...
> ...sick fucks ...
> ...stenching filth ...

You are becoming repetitive.
How about some nice norwegian swear words ?

But I hope to make the case that he was worth the trouble.

The posts about him since the announcement of his death have been a mix of warm remembrances and shrugs of good riddance. It's not often you see discussion of someone's death accompanied by so much bitterness. I remember many such send-offs for Jerry Falwell, for example. But in defense of his detractors, Falwell had quite an army of disciples primed to carry out political missions that many considered hateful. By contrast, while Naggum was a difficult person to talk to sometimes, he didn't enlist armies of people to go out and be mean to others. He just spoke his mind.

On a reddit discussion forum after Erik's death, one person wrote, “He flamed me for my spelling, suggesting that there should be a spellchecker in the NNTP server (or client, not sure) that rejected postings with so many mistakes. But it helped - I learned to use a spell checker. His form was sometimes crass, but his intentions were good.”

He was frequently called upon to defend himself as to his personal style. Once, for example, he wrote, “Why so many of you fucking losers have to read what I post and work yourself up like cats in heat, and then ask me not to post as opposed to they not reading what they do not like, I have not figured out.”

And, indeed, the forum from which this text was taken, the primary forum in which I came to know Erik, was an unmoderated forum that was part of USENET, a distributed discussion technology that dates back to the ARPANET, the net that predated the Internet. An important aspect of unmoderated USENET forums was their free speech aspect, and there really was no recourse in such forums if you didn't like what you read other than to stop reading. So he had a certain point, which I came to believe and defend.

He was well-respected for the pioneering nature, the meticulous quality, and the beauty of the code he wrote. In addition to his technical accomplishments, he was a deep thinker on many issues, well-read in traditional philosophy but with his own very definite opinions.

He sent mail to the New York Times, condemning George W. Bush's actions subsequent to 9/11. I don't know if it was published; the copy I have was sent me directly by Erik at the same time he wrote to them. The letter he wrote was long and made many points highly critical of both Bush and the citizenry of the US for having tolerated Bush. However, one small aspect caught my eye and stuck with me, so I went back to that old email to retrieve the exact text. He had written, “But there is still one thing that America has taught the world. You have taught us all that giving second chances is not just generosity, but the wisdom that even the best of us sometimes make stupid mistakes that it would be grossly unfair to believe were one's true nature.”

This stuck with me in part because Erik's detractors are so quick to be unforgiving of his faults, and yet he could see clearly the need for people to be allowed to mend. And I often sometimes wondered when he was in his more abusive modes, condemning others for a suspected insanity, whether he was really talking to someone else, or talking to himself. He seemed to be plagued somewhat by demons of his own, and to project them onto others. But looking back on it, it seems so harmless, and his intent so good, in spite of all.

Perhaps I see in him a bit of me. I try not to do the verbal lashing out thing, or not as harshly certainly. But I certainly understand the frustration with people who don't see my point. And I've been known to be abrupt with people. Yet I'm always just trying to improve things, and forever surprised at how hard it can be for people to see that. So perhaps it's easier for me to look for good intention in someone like Erik.

I learned a lot from talking to Erik on matters technical and non-technical. But one thing I learned, not from what he said, but from the meta-discussion which was always there about whether to tolerate him, is that I think we as people are not all the same. We make rules of manners and good ways to be that are for typical people. But the really exceptional people among us are not typical. Often the people who achieve things in fact do so because of some idiosyncracy of them, some failing they have turned to a strength.

In a discussion on reddit, someone had suggested that we should say: “Erik Naggum was a contributor to the HyTime standard who had a nasty habit of flaming people and driving them away from great technologies.” My reply was that, no, we should say “The great endeavors of mankind are often done by people with this or that weakness.”

For example, the Republican Party in the United States has consistently suggested that somehow the US would be better if it were run by someone with flawless moral character. Jimmy Carter fit that bill and yet when inflation went into double digits, Republicans hated him just the same. Bill Clinton, for all his flaws, was a more effective president.

So I liked Erik. Does that make him a role model? I think the answer is “in some ways, not in others.” But isn't that true for all people? Telling our youth that they must be perfect and pointing them to people who we offer as examples of perfection seems like rigging the game for everyone to lose. Eventually it will be found that the models of perfection are not perfect. And the people we're pointing to these models will either be disillusioned or will have protected themselves with cynicism. We want neither. Better to identify people as people, and to say “there's a trait [or achievement] to emulate.” Or even, “there's a person from whom you can learn a great deal.” No need to say, “Be everything that person is” nor “Be do everything that person does.”

Michael Phelps is a perfect illustration of this. People of great accomplishment, being human, do have flaws. Even after the bong incident, he can still be a role model for swimming, and the hard work it takes to succeed.

Growing up, and starting out in the world, one's flaws can keep one from getting noticed, and it's well to teach our youth to work on minimizing them. But at some point we must not rewrite history and pretend that we had the choice to do all the great deeds that have been done by only encouraging and revering people for whom there is nothing bad to be said.

A great many people practicing Computer Science in particular are great as a consequence of their obsessive nature of one kind or another. The ability to be focused, meticulous, intolerant of deviation from spec are all qualities we programmers need, and sometimes the personality types that are attracted to the field of computer science are going to show effects in other areas.

In Erik there was at least a person who died having dared to speak his mind. I so admire that. But more than that, he had things to say. And they were things that made the effort worthwhile. I'd rather that than endless blathering of no consequence delivered in oh-so-polite tones.

I will miss him greatly. But I am thankful I had a chance to get to know him.

I had to laugh when someone anonymous wrote:

Erik Naggum
He hated stupid people

I don't even know that he hated stupid people, though. It seemed to me he just didn't like wasting time with them.

But either way, it is perhaps more appropriate to allow Erik to write his own epitaph. On his own web page, Erik offers his explanation of the meaning of life. It's not long. I recommend reading it. But I quote here a single sentence, which I offer as evidence that he accomplished what seems like a reasonably stated mission:

“The purpose of human existence is to learn and to understand as much as we can of what came before us, so we can further the sum total of human knowledge in our life.” —Erik Naggum

¹ Kjetilho posted to reddit, “the autopsy concluded that the cause of death was a massively hemorrhaging stomach ulcer. my take is that it was probably caused by the large amounts of NSAIDs he took for his bad back, which he in turn got from too little physical activity. so in a way, the root cause could be said to be UC.”

If you got value from this post, please "rate" it.

Photo cropped from a photo by Kevin Layer,
licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Other Remembrances of Erik
Tobias Rittweiler's Blog
Ruben on VoIP
Arve's Post (and Discussion) on Reddit
Kjetil's Post on The Subclass Explosion
Zach's Journal Entry

Vintage Erik
Defending his occasional outbursts: [1] [2] [3]
Discussing Common Lisp: [1] [2] [3]
Discussing abstract concepts: Asking for references

Erik, Posthumously
Erik Naggum on Atlas Shrugged

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Kent I have several great jazz legends who are pen pals and live in Europe and I can so relate to your loss. Alex Riel lives in Copenhagen, Denmark and the author of the Miles Davis biography "The Last Miles" George Cole lives in the UK. We converse often about music, politics and life and a loss of one of them would be tough. Alex is now in his 70's but like a Jack LaLane he's as fit as a forty year old. He still puts out albums yearly. My condolences for your loss and I'm sure your friend would get a kick out of this post.
"...I certainly understand the frustration with people who don't see my point. And I've been known to be abrupt with people. Yet I'm always just trying to improve things, and forever surprised at how hard it can be for people to see that."

Me, too. And as I get older I find that my temper is a little shorter, my frustrations a bit quicker to rise. (And I am also geeky enough and long enough in the tooth to remember USENET, but that's another story.) I wouldn't have had much sympathy for the personal insults that your friend resorted to, but I am much impressed by your example of seeing beyond that flaw. There are quite a few brilliant, but very difficult, people in my life and on balance, their contributions ultimately outweigh their less-than-stellar personal conduct.

Your tribute to Erik Naggum is probably one of the best out there. We should all be so lucky to have a friend who is willing to see beyond our flaws and appreciate our better qualities. My sympathies to his friends, family, colleagues. He was much too young to die and it sounds like he had plenty left to contribute to "the sum total of human knowledge."
I am truly sorry for your loss, Kent. I had no idea how we can get attached with our online friends until we lost our own Josie Ortiz.
Erik sounded like quite a character.
This makes such perfect sense:
He was frequently called upon to defend himself as to his personal style. Once, for example, he wrote, “Why so many of you fucking losers have to read what I post and work yourself up like cats in heat, and then ask me not to post as opposed to they not reading what they do not like, I have not figured out.”

This is really a great post and a fine tribute to your longtime friend.
In the mid '90s I had to hire someone to revolutionize the way we were using technology in what is by nature a very stodgy business. I found someone who I thought was brilliant, but most everyone disliked because of his brusque manner, the way he explained computer related things and then got dismissive of you if you didnt get it or at least give him the room to do whatever it was that he imagined. This man completely changed our business for the better, turning a mediocre little company into a powerhouse that changed the business model for the state. And still, most disliked him, even those who made buckets of money off him. I found the best way to deal with him was simply to say, I dont understand you but I trust you, go ahead. This allowed us to be friends.
Sounds like your colleague was cut from the same cloth. And it sounds like your life was improved by knowing him. Sorry for your loss.
I managed to avoid Erik Naggum's wrath by remaining silent. Now I'm sorry I never got to know him. But I'm glad you did, and I'm very glad you stood up for your friend.
What a wonderful tribute to a man who obviously "did not suffer fools well". I'm reminded of a response by Hunter Thompson to criticism of his subjective journalism in which he correctly pointed out, to paraphrase, that niceties were not warranted when dealing with evil.

While I concur with Erik about the forgiving nature of Americans, I'm not sure I'd associate that in a positive way with the election and re-election of George W. Bush, who seems to me altogether damning proof of the fact that some people are incapable of learning from their mistakes -- perhaps because they admit to none.
Hi, Kent. I'd like to echo your sentiments about Erik. It was my experience, too, that he was charming and helpful to people when he was standing in front of them. It was when he was at the keyboard that the worst behavior came out. Had he not been ill, I think his life would have been very different. I makes me sad that it turned out the way it did. I'm looking for a place to post some pictures I have of him, and I'll let you know when I've done that. -Kevin Layer
Tom, he had nothing good to say about Bush. Only about the general quality of America, which he thought was redeemed by things like what I described in that passage. He was extremely irritated that we allowed W to be our leader at all.
Your tribute is heartfelt and eloquent. I hope that when I pass on, someone speaks about me this way and that I have done as much for the world as Erik Naggum did.
Kent, I can and do understand Erick’s impulse of not “suffering fools lightly”. The concept is easy to comprehend when faced with such as the apologists for the Bush / Cheney debacle or Libertarians, Marxists, Fascists, and followers of myriad other extreme religious or political cults. It is a challenge to even listen to recalcitrant foolhardy ideological rigidity justified by hearsay, worn out clichés based on some article of blind faith; a sacred holy cow rather than open dialog where historical facts and philosophies may be explored and openly discussed.

Then there is the matter of faulty spelling or errors in grammatical composition, in those cases when the writer has a burning passion unaccompanied by a firm knowledge of the language well… Some license could be expedient though not necessarily required. The proverb says “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the character of his friend” there is a useful place for criticism even when perceived a sharp and biting.

Nevertheless all of us are imperfect and especially so those who leave a mark in the world. Erick lived according to his own philosophy and true to his interpretation of the reason for existence; he added to human knowledge while retaining the ability to observe historical mistakes and do his part in warning others of such pitfalls.

Thank you for the post it caused me to stop, look, listen and think.
I'm amazed at what an extensive and concientious
tribute you made to someone who seemed extremely
cool yet you only knew through the internet. (and meeting face to face once)
I'm impressed.
I'm sure he would be as well.
You must have a great circle of friends.
Last year, I lost a dear friend; it was a bitter loss. Sshould I survive, I expect to lose more. It is that time of life. I mourn your loss with you, Kent.

One does have to be a bit of a butthead for reviews to be mixed, even in death. Nevertheless, you paint the picture of a man of great sensitivity and grace. Oftentimes, I rage against stupidity and injustice. I don't usually take the fight directly to the enemy, however. I admire men of courage such as Erik Naggum, who cannot be cowed by society and who speak truth to morons, no matter how powerful, and yet are introspective enough to know the limits of their own righteousness.

Thanks for this.
Rich, he was both sensitive and not, depending on circumstance. I think he picked who he would spend his sensitivity on. It's not how most of us do it. The references at the end allow you to see some of his posts and what his manner was. There are probably better examples but I didn't find any in the time I allotted for searching them down. Maybe I'll find some and add them later. I don't mean to paint him as a saint, but rather as someone who “paid his dues.”

I think the key is that not every person does deserve that we look past such behavior. But there are people who enrich us where it would be disingenuous to take their gifts and then to say we had the right to say who they must be in order to have given them.

The option was not a less sexually straying Bill Clinton, for example. The option was more of George HW Bush, or perhaps allowing McCain into the game. We did well going with Clinton and should have kept our nose out of his closet (or whatever that room is that adjoins the Oval Office).

Likewise for Erik. He built things and improved things and taught of things enough that if we want to teach our kids a lesson based on it, the lesson can be “succeed as well as he did and then I'll consider cutting you some slack.”
So often it is the "difficult" people that leave the biggest legacy. I don't believe there is any excuse for name calling or denigrating someone's physical appearance, but speaking your truth no matter what others think requires a special mixture of bravery and foolhardiness. I consider not suffering fools gladly to be positive character trait, and one that I possess myself.
Kent, Zach collected a great amount of links to Erik's material on his blog:
Thanks, aerique. I added a pointer in the article. I also added a picture I got from Kevin Layer.
While I didn't know him and my spelling may have driven him to anger, he sounds like a person who's heart was in the struggle to make the world better. No one can be a perfect role model. Human nature is designed with built in flaws in character that will affect the perspective. We can only hope that in those areas that we are able to we will provide an example.
Erik Naggum was a "name" to me before, but by reading this and following your cites I see that a truly incisive thinker stood behind the name.

Re: the "meaning of life" sentence - I think the previous sentence helps to clarify it, in particular, "... all our predecessors ask of us is that we not waste our brief life ignoring the past only to rediscover or reinvent its lessons badly." - Erik is now part of that didactic "past," so it is only fitting that his lectures will be his legacy :)
This says as much about you, Kent, as it does about your complicated friend. It tells me you have kindness to spare, so you lent him some of yours.
Excellent obituary, Kent. Having met Erik once, I feel you say the right things. I am sad the Lisp community lost one of its most outspoken members.
nice tribute, Kent. On a day filled with rememberances of celebrities we thought we knew, it's good to see a dive below the surface of a 'real' person and see his very real influence.

I like his meaning of life. It's akin to what they told me was the purpose of my Ph.D. research, and goofy as it sounds when I heard that, for a moment I felt like I was in rarefied company.
I totally agree with Kent's (and Naggum's) point that if you don't like what you are reading on Usenet, you can simply stop reading. I must confess though, that in the case of Naggum's posts, I found it preferable to stop reading.
Thank you for this highly interesting, enlightening and well-written post. I will like to read your friend's writing and look forward to more of yours. Rated.
god, this is so full of the man I really get the sense of him, it's fair, it's well rounded, it has substance and depths, it's just beautiful. Thanks for introducing him to this reader and I am sorry for the loss of your friend at such a young age.
My pleasure, Ariana. I'm glad I could do that.