Erik Naggum, 10 Years On

Posted on June 17, 2019 by Jack Kelly
Tags: lisp, programming, culture

Life is hard, and then you die.

Source: Erik Naggum - USENET Signature

Ten years ago today (according to Wikipedia and this blog comment; other sources say 2009-06-20, which seems to be incorrect), Erik Naggum died. He is one of fifteen people enshrined in cat-v.org’s Hotel Genius, and was one of the more controversial figures on USENET and comp.lang.lisp in particular. His writing was often incandescent - a mixture of intelligent thought, stunning eloquence, and searing flames. That flaming made him controversial, even before his death. I recall reading his writing when I was in university and fascinated by lisp, but I never knew him. Even so, I’m a bit sad that only ten years past his death, his impact on the internet seems largely confined to a couple of RFCs and a snarkive on Wikiquote.

It’s interesting that someone with such a reputation for hostile behaviour online was eulogised by quite a few people after his death:

In the beginning I thought of him as a one of those Mr-know-it-alls you ran across on usenet. After I matured, not least intellectually, I realised how wrong I had been. […] I’ve learned a lot from talking to Erik. It’s no exaggeration that he during these years really changed the way I look at the world. He really appreciated it when I told him this, and he replied that he liked the fact that I didn’t take everything he said for granted. That meant he too had to work hard to question his own beliefs. […] I will miss him very, very much.

Source: Elf’s Treehouse

Erik Naggum was the first person I killfiled in GNUS. His style was sometimes shockingly blunt and aggressive. After a while, though, I realized I was missing out, and I came to treasure the information and insight in his messages.

Source: Zach Beane’s Blog

“When a man dies, a library burns down”

[…]

He was strong and self-confident, that’s the trait most people knew him by. He most often stood alone, upright, however strong the wind was. But standing up against the wind has a price. Noone comes unharmed from so many years of struggle and stubbornness.

As well as being strong he was also … not weak, but vulnerable, sometimes even frail. He could be unexpectedly hurt by a careless remark, and I had to learn to watch my tongue. A classical mistake – I thought he could take some fooling around, him being so tough. But he wasn’t, not in private matters.

He could also be very vulnerable at the arena where he seemed the most invincible – Usenet and other Internet fora. Those who knew him only from the Net may not believe me, but he could sometimes be terribly upset and hurt when he was criticized or attacked by someone he respected … even by someone he despised.

[…]

When I heard of his death it was like a blow to my stomach. Vi had’nt been in touch for a long time, he had rejected me, defined as one of his enemies. (Hatred is the emergency exit in the house of love).

Source: Pernille Nylehns’ Blog


It would be too simple to write Erik off as just another USENET flamer, ready to dish it out but not to take it. Even if that was true, there was a coherent value system underlying his behaviour, and his Ideas and Principles page sets out a lot of it. His thoughts on Small and Big Lies explains why he seems to have been disinclined to let things go or “agree to disagree”:

If a lie is obvious, people will understand it right away, or as soon as they try to act on it, tell it to someone else, etc. This makes big lies harmless; they can even safely be used as humor. In contrast, small lies are capable of serious, long-term damage, and even if it is uncovered, people may have based too much on them to be able to correct it. In a sense, small lies may become truth because people act as if they are. This is why they must be stopped, and stopped in time. Stopping a small lie may require much effort, especially in alerting the complacent masses of its falsity, but stopping it now will require less effort than stopping it later, especially if it spreads.

Similarly, his essay on Punishers and Moralists is worth reading and chewing over, even if you disagree with it. (Aside: this came from a private conversation, and was reposted by the recipient, in saddened response to Erik’s death):

Civility and politeness are extremely useful tools in communication with people who are more wrong than right, but of very little use with people who are vastly more right than wrong. This counter-intuitive observation comes directly from the fact that we simply do not need civil and polite ways of telling people that they are right about something. So the people who have most to gain from civility and politeness are people who know they are and intend to stay wrong while they force everybody else hold their tongues.

The failure modes of civility/politeness culture include tolerance of help vampires and taboos on questions like “what have you tried?”. The big failure mode of the online culture represented by Erik is the burning off of newbies before they settle in and become valuable veterans. Communities live and die by how well they attract newbies and convert them into valuable veterans, so burning them off too readily can be an existential risk to a community. The upside of civility/politeness culture is a more welcoming environment for newbies; the upside of the culture Erik represented is an environment where people are challenged to bring their very best:

When discussing anything with Erik I knew that I had to sharpen my mind before replying or posting a followup to whatever he was writing. The really good thing I learned to appreciate when talking with Erik was that it forced me to ask my self WHY I had the opinions I had. […] You will be missed, old friend.

Source: Reuben on VoIP (via the Internet Archive)


I often find myself looking backwards at older ideas, because I believe there are gems to be found in overlooked history, even in such a young discipline as CS. So perhaps now would be a good time to prompt others to chew on his writings once more, even if you do end up spitting some of them back out:

Nobody is perfect. If we insist on remembering only the perfect, we’ll be forever disappointed. Moreover, we’ll be forced to tear down our memorials as our moral codes advance. Far better to look for the best in people and aim to copy the best parts you can find, wherever you find them. Emulating the part does not mean emulating the whole.

I’m going to close this out with one final quote of Erik’s, from the Knowledge and Information page of his Ideas and Principles site:

People search for the meaning of life, but this is the easy question: we are born into a world that presents us with many millenia of collected knowledge and information, and 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.

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