A friend of mine died recently. His name was Erik Naggum. He lived in Norway. 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:
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:
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.”
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Erik Naggum on Atlas Shrugged