Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Erik Naggum, R.I.P.

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.”

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published June 24, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

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

Tags (from Open Salon): personal, erik naggum, erik naggum eulogy, death, erik naggum death, r.i.p., erik naggum r.i.p., friend, politics, personal style, manners, controversy, controversial, role model, personal flaw, character flaw, legacy, epitaph, philosophy, meaning of life, commentary, abuse, abusive, foul language, common lisp, sgml, contribution, fools, foolish, intolerance, abruptness, free speech, excellence, insight, michael phelps, jimmy carter, bill clinton, jerry falwell

Monday, June 1, 2009

My Secret Shame: Confessions of a Republican Wannabe

On a site like Open Salon, it's often assumed one is a Democrat. I'm not. I'm an Independent. I do admit it's hard to tell the difference sometimes, but is that my fault? The Republicans seem never to offer me a credible alternative.

Of course, you could make the claim I should be checking out the Green Party or the Libertarian Party. Nice try, but no dice. There are a couple reasons for this. First, I'm old enough to have thrown away my vote on third-party candidates before; been there, done that. Voting on principle is nice, and I'm all for changing our voting system to use preference-order voting, but absent that, I'll vote where my vote can make a difference, thank you.

And, frankly, I think the thing that holds these third parties back is their stubborn insistence on principle. Principles are great, but as I discussed in The “Two Unprincipled Parties” System, it's the unprincipled nature of the Democratic and the Republican parties that keep them in active contention. That nature allows the parties to dynamically adjust their platform in order to respond to changes in public sentiment. Contrast this with the Green Party or Libertarian Party which are wedded to ideas and hence incapable of changing in order to acquire more votes.

There are occasions where I've gone so far as to call myself a “Republican Wannabe,” not because the Republican Party of late (by which I'm afraid I mostly mean “within my lifetime”) offers much of anything I'd ever “want to be” but because the words the Republicans often say they are about don't sound bad. I wish there really were a Republican Party that was about small, fiscally responsible government that cares about personal liberty and privacy. They sometimes spout such words, but their actions don't match, and I just can't bear it.

I did actually vote for Bill Weld, a Republican, to be Governor of Massachusetts. He was socially liberal, compassionate, strong on crime, and fiscally responsible. A good mix, I thought. But, alas, not typical of what the Republican is selling these days.

Also, my desire for small government is not dogmatic in nature. So while I liked how Jesse Ventura borrowed from Lincoln in saying that government should only do for people what they can't do for themselves, I find it's not always so easy to say exactly what people can and cannot do for themselves.

For example, it might seem that health care is something people can arrange for themselves. But I've watched health care play out over a lifetime, and it's clear to me that health insurance has gone from a well-meaning pool that protected people from unknown health risks to a cynically and scientifically run system that tries to most efficiently separate people from their money, maximizing profits while minimizing its own responsibilities. Saying health care is something people can do for themselves depends on whether you just mean that there are insurance policies for sale or whether you mean that people have a legitimate and compassionate set of choices. So just because I favor small government over large doesn't mean I favor it for arbitrary reasons; there are a lot of reasons to suppose that the smallest workable and fair government really does need to address health care, and to believe that this cannot be left to the individual.

So please don't assume when I say I'm for small government that I mean to say I oppose some particular set of issues. What I mean, rather, is that if all other things are equal, I prefer small to large. But sometimes small doesn't work, and I'm open to discussion on some matters that others might not be.

What I want from the various parties is to provide me a different perspective about how to think about problems. I want options I can evaluate freely without regard to where they came from. I assume that the very different perspectives of each party will provide me with a rich variety of options. What I care about is workability to really solve the stated problem, not some idealized notion of a problem. And there are two things that really catch my eye a lot with Republican options: First, they seem to go out of their way to be mean-spirited and to make life miserable for people who are just trying to get by—they're forever trying to sell their policies by demonizing someone, and in the process they often don't actually solve the problems they set out to solve. And second, their solutions are often very fragile. They work really well if you make the right assumptions about the people involved, the order in which things happen, etc., but they leave people helpless if they deviate even a little from the norm (often, but not always, a norm characterized by being economically well-off, healthy, white, straight, male, and Christian).

The Republicans say they're about family values, but that turns out to be code for something much more sinister. To me, family values means something that promotes the notion of people helping people, of people treating each other kindly, of people within a family loving one another, of people wanting children to grow up happy and healthy. But many gay families pass this requirement and yet are shunned by the so-called party of family values.

The Republicans say they're about fiscal responsibility, yet they orchestrated the worst economic catastrophe in the history of the world. And why? Because they effectively enshrined the notion that “greed is good,” a claim that is so obviously ridiculous it's a wonder it wasn't laughed out of the room the moment it was first said. But, of course, people who desperately want to believe a selfish thing will find themselves highly motivated to stretch in what they are willing to believe.

The Republicans say they're about the Constitution, but when attempts are made to enforce privacy rights or free speech rights, we find them making exceptions. In fact, I honestly think that before the neocons took over the party, the Republican Party really was about this one. And there are a few lonely voices even now within the Republican Party that pay lip service to this issue. But when push comes to shove we see party line votes on matters that do not uphold free speech and privacy rights.

I really just don't like the idea of aligning with a party; I fear the notion of “toeing someone's party line.” I like independently evaluating issues on their merits. When I voted for Weld in the Massachusetts primary, I was going to be out of town and had to vote absentee. To do that, I had to declare a party and was temporarily a Republican for a few weeks near the election. I recall worrying that I would die in an accident and that my tombstone would read “he died a Republican.” So maybe it's not fair to say I actually want to be a Republican. But I do covet the issue space that the Republicans allegedly care about, and I do think they're falling down in their duty to offer me options that fit in that space.

I refuse to give in and simply call myself a Democrat. I continue to hold out the hope that the Republican Party will surprise me one day with good ideas that will give my preferred status as an Independent a legitimate sense of identity distinct from being a member of the Democratic Party. But some days keeping that hope alive is like trying to keep a candle burning in the winds of a hurricane.

Here I sit, trying to decide what I think of Judge Sotomayor. In spite of her being the clear choice of Obama and the Democrats, I'm really quite annoyed by that controversial ruling Judge Sotomayor has written about controversial free speech rights of school children, the one Paul Levinson has written extensively about. The details of that ruling trouble me a great deal. I'd like to ask her a great many questions about it.

But even as I'd like to consider the ruling, and the candidate, with an independent eye, I have my television tuned in to all kinds of ridiculousness from the sitting Republicans that once again threatens to embarrass me if I go that way. I am incensed about the petty set of things the Republican Party has chosen to make into talking points, stupid issues that are not at all good reasons not to make this woman a Supreme Court Justice.

Quiet down, Republicans. I can't figure out if this candidate is a good choice for the Court, but if you don't stop saying completely idiotic things in opposition, I'm going to feel driven to side with her merely because you have once again made it utterly unpalatable to ever even consider the possibility of an opposing point of view. For once, please don't be your own worst enemy. Just once, I'd like to feel I had a choice.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published June 1, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, republican, independent, democrat, republican wannabe, own worst enemy, shooting itself in the foot, republican party, sonia sotomayor, sotomayor, supreme court, court, justice, appointment, supreme court justice, candidate, bill weld, jesse ventura