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Erik Naggum (1965-2009) RIP (twitter.com/kjetilv)
61 points by dmm on June 20, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 75 comments

I keep hearing about how Erik was such a smart guy and how he contributed so much to the Lisp community. I have a serious question for those of you who say that his net influence was positive despite his abrasiveness: other than "The Long, Painful History of Time", a few pithy quotes, and a lot of rants on usenet, what exactly did Erik contribute?

I used to be a prolific ranter with an interest in Lisp. Running into Eric's posts inspired me to give that up - I didn't want online rants to be my legacy. Related, Xah Lee's crazy writings inspired me to take my social life seriously and not over-share on the internet. Both of them, and the rest of the comp.lang.lisp, taught me that getting stuff done was more important than making sure I was using the most aesthetically pure computing environment. Another lisp programmer, Philip Greenspun, also demonstrated the negative effects of too much writing online. In addition, he showed me that photography was mostly a factor of how much film and equipment one can afford, which inspired me to give that up and focus more on music and other things I had natural talent for. Finally, and only related in form, reading Ludwig Wittgenstein's later "notebook" style writings inspired me to give up on philosophy and enter industry instead of philosophy grad school.

> photography was mostly a factor of how much film and equipment one can afford

If that were the case my father in law would be world famous

> photography was mostly a factor of how much film and equipment one can afford,


Quite an eloquent rebuttal. Such a knee jerk response really makes me reconsider the truth of the statement.

I'm sorry, but the original claim dismissed an entire field of art by claiming that it boiled down to amount of wealth. I thought of writing something longer – perhaps an elegiac about the typical disparagement of what one does not understand, or a list of parallel examples that would show the stupidity of the argument (“computer programming was mostly a factor of how much CPU one could afford.”), but then I decided that it was so self-evidently absurd that it would be a waste of breath to do more than simply point it out as bullshit.

the original claim dismissed an entire field of art by claiming that it boiled down to amount of wealth I can imagine that, say in the seventies, both camera's and film were a lot more expensive than nowadays(relatively). As practice makes perfect, really getting into photography, wouldn't be an option for all people then, because it would be too expensive a hobby.

It may have been a pretty weird blanket statement, but there may also have been a hidden context that makes it a reasonable statement.

Certainly his famous XML rant was informative and provocative. The thing that still rings in my mind is the argument that presentation and content are not really separable. Still chewing on that one.

There were many minor bits of analysis that he did to code, taking up challenges about performance, for example. I remember one example where he clearly spent hours on one performance claim, rewrote the proposed code within an inch of its life and gave an irrefutable argument about what the performance was.

His deep knowledge of SGML (I suspect deeper than all but a handful of folks) was a great source of insight on comp.text.sgml for what seems like a long time. His many rants about C++ were informative as well as confrontational. He told of working in C++ and generating very nice looking code, to the satisfaction of the client. He cheated a bit, however, as he used Lisp to generate the code.

There have always been reactions to his blunt, confrontational style. There are subjects, however, for which there are a right and a wrong. Erik wouldn't hesitate. Did not Richard Feynman reduce an ill-prepared presenter to tears with relentless questions?

Good teachers are not necessarily putting the student's feeling of self-worth first.

A fine overview is over at zach's journal: http://xach.livejournal.com/221433.htm

Here is another example of Erik's contribution: http://xml.coverpages.org/archsite.html#primFTP

Interesting. My question has been downvoted. But it has not been answered.

(I didn't downvote you, but I'll try to answer).

I lurked on comp.lang.lisp quite a lot in 1999-2002, and I made a point of reading Erik Naggum's posts on technical topics. Those posts made me feel that I learned something. When I had time, I sometimes read his non-technical posts, too, and most were pretty entertaining, as long as not taken too seriously.

He will be missed.

> He will be missed.

Yes, I get that. What I'm trying to understand is why. Is it really just the usenet postings, or did he do something else that I'm not aware of?

I think that was all, but to those who fervently believe that there is no language superior to Common Lisp, he gave voice to the ... let's call it intense disappointment, of seeing the overwhelming majority of the rest of the world flock to inferior languages. For everyone who had to suffer through yet another numskull saying "Gosh, it's just too many parentheses", he gave delight by excoriating the syntaxes of other languages.

And to those intelligent people who sincerely disagreed with him, he may have looked like just another elitist troll contributing to the intolerant atmosphere that they might believe held back Lisp, but such is the nature of bias, on both sides.

I do think that there are many languages superior to Common Lisp, actually as a good follower of the Bell Labs school of Worse is Better I find CL rather tedious.

Still I will miss him, his rants were often full of wisdom, and his critiques of mainstream software practices were spot on.

His eloquence and clarity of thought is something I can only aspire to.

Because he forced well-intentioned people to _think_ before asking questions. The quality of dialogue increased. Lurkers benefited.

Unfortunately there were many people _without_ good intentions who tried to engage him in dialogue. They got the blowtorch.

I'm only speaking for myself, but that's why I'll miss him. If that's not good enough for you, kindly fuck off.

I knew him mostly through his usenet posts; he always seemed to have interesting opinions, often expressed very bluntly.

I really like his essay, "The Long, Painful History of Time": http://naggum.no/lugm-time.html See also local-time, a common lisp package based on his ideas: http://common-lisp.net/project/local-time/

"Whoever decided to use the semicolon to end something should just be taken out and have his colon semified."

Thanks Erik, I didn't know you, but you made my life happier for a whole minute :-D

To announce someone's death in a fucking TWEET is so insulting I actually feel angry.

update: Mod me down all you want, twitter fans. I'll be happy to tweet your deaths as well, if I can fit it in between what I had for breakfast and the funny thing my cat just did.

When my sister died, the reality was that I didn't know everyone that was important to her, so I had to resort to emailing all those she had emailed in a mass mailing she had sent a while back. I also created a web page so that people would find when they searched for her.

If twitter had been around, I would have posted there too.

Years on, I still get email from old friends of hers who found out via the page and want to chat about her to me.

I think you're taking it way too seriously. This is from someone who's never used Twitter.

I'd take it less well if he were in my family, but I'm sure they learned the news first.

Well, I don't think he would mind. He would mind if someone said something stupid about it ;)

If you somehow prevent significant events like this from appearing on twitter, the net effect is that fewer people are aware of them. Is that the outcome you want?

He had a unique online persona - simultaneously nasty and fanatic(about lisp) and brilliant.

Look at the United States of America, with its depressingly moronic units instead of going metric, with its inability to write dates in either ascending or descending order of unit size, and with its insistence upon the 12-hour clock, clearly evidencing the importance of the short-term pain threshold and resistance to doing anyone else's bidding. And now the one-time freest nation of the world has turned dictatorship with a dangerous moron in charge, set to attack Iraq to revenge his father's loss. Those who laughed when I said that stupidity is the worst threat to mankind laugh no more; they wait with bated breath to see if the world's most powerful incoherent moron will launch the world into a world war simply because he is too fucking stupid. But what really pisses me off is the spineless American people who fails to stop this madness. Presidents have been shot and killed before.

This is a fine example of the nastiness I guess, but it kinda makes sense in a weird sorta way !

And earlier about SGML.

Age ~44? What are the oblique references to his declining health related to?

(" I am unable to keep my company in operation for health reasons, but it is one of those things I just cannot give up. Instead of being a commercial undertaking, it is now only a hobby. Until my health improves, which it might never do sufficiently" - http://naggum.no )

ulcerative colitis

Is there any other confirmation of Erik's death?

if you ever played street basketball you would understand the context of erik's controversial posts. next time you're in ny, head over to west 4th street's basketball court in manhattan - the language is thick and the gestures are threatening, only to be followed up with chilly beer and dubbies. the net is relatively new, most people aren't aware you have to put on 3D glasses.

This is really sad, he was one of the greatest thinkers of the hacker community, certainly up there with pg.

This doesn't make him justice, but his rant about XML is one of my favorite rants ever: http://harmful.cat-v.org/software/xml/s-exp_vs_XML

Naggum was sort of the anti-pg (actually on Wiki he's described as PaulGraham's EvilTwin): people who loved Lisp were driven away from the community because they couldn't take the abuse, and so comp.lang.lisp became a vicious slime pit.

There's more discussion and some minimal confirmation on reddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/programming/comments/8u5dp/erik_nagg...

Unlike most of the posters there, I'm glad he's gone. The world is a better place without him, and maybe now the Lisp community can begin to heal.

Kragen, that is uncalled for. In most cultures, that remark is reserved for people who have hurt others. Naggum was opinionated about a freaking programming language. As far anybody knows, he did not hurt a human being.

Nearly every Naggum post on comp.lang.lisp was an attempt to hurt other people; he was a master of emotional cruelty. I was never a victim of it myself, as far as I can remember, but it repelled me from the forum.

He was not attempting to hurt people. That some people reacted that way to his posts is not an indication of intent.

Of the posts of his I read, it seems that he would go that direction only when someone else already painted themselves the victim of emotional hurt from his earlier technical criticism.

You could argue he should've reacted differently to this self-victimization, but I worry what that would do to the signal-to-noise ratio of the forum in question. If people who require emotional coddling are encouraged to participate in technical forms, then a lot of the conversations focus on that rather than on technical point.

ESR was not entirely wrong when he stated you can pick exaggeratedly "friendly" or useful; Naggum's goal was to keep the forum firmly planted in the realm of useful, even if it meant offending some people along the way. I think there is some virtue in this. Of the posts of his I read, there were nuggets of very good wisdom in all of them.

Not that I disagree, but this thread is an interesting point of reference: http://groups.google.com/group/comp.lang.lisp/browse_thread/...

Everyone who is commenting and downmodding here should read at least the first message in that thread. Then they should mod up my top-level comment and apologize.

Do you have any self-awareness of the irony of asking people to not express sorrow at someone's death because you think he was a sociopath?

Expressing glee at another person's death is pretty sick, but wanting an apology from people who downmodded you for it is just outright twisted. Seek help.

I'm not asking people not to express sorrow; I just don't think that silently downmodding my comment is a reasonable or effective way of doing it. I think it's a slap in the face of all the people Erik bullied and abused over the years to punish someone for speaking out on their behalf.

With regard to me "seeking help": were you consciously quoting Erik's post, or was that a matter of unconscious irony?

I think it's a slap in the face of all the people Erik bullied and abused over the years...

.. and now that he's gone, you have finally gotten up the courage to do some bullying of your own, to a man who can't fight back because he's... you know... dead?

Umm, yay you?

What's your next trick, clubbing some baby seals?

The fact is, people post crap on the interwebs every day. It is true the net is a series of tubes and unfortunately some of those tubes are sewage pipes. Deal with it.

Can you please tell me what reasonable and effective method I could use to get you to stop expressing joy at Erik Naggum's death? I'll happily employ that instead of downmodding you and calling out your current behavior as every bit as terrible as or worse than the worst of what he ever did.

When you die and some idiot troll posts a link to this thread and expresses glee that you're gone, hopefully someone will come along and call that asshole out, too.

Read the whole thread. You will see that it was the fault of the the OP and not Erik.

I agree that Erik wrote a very violent mail, but I am sure he was not serious.

Did you read Xah Lee's mail too?

Read the whole thread. You will see that it was the fault of the the OP and not Erik.

I see. The OP dared to send a private email to Erik. Do you think this "fault" justifies the response "I'm overjoyed that I actually hurt your feelings. I wish I could hurt your feelings so much you would commit suicide" etc. etc.?

* I agree that Erik wrote a very violent mail, but I am sure he was not serious. *

Huh? Please cite even one sentence from his mail that was in the least bit lighthearted or joking. If you sent this email to someone today, the police would be at your doorstep within hours.

* Did you read Xah Lee's mail too? *

Yes, he sounds like a psychopath.

There's no way a sane person can read that thread and come to the conclusion that Erik was the good guy there. I don't mean to jump on the bash Erik bandwagon, since I know nothing about him other than what's been written in this forum. Whatever his contributions were to the hacker community, that thread was obviously not his finest hour.

xah lee seems like a social fellow to me:

"will be building a dam, when there is a pussy flood. for i am a collector of nature, and a lover of its treasure. i will use my savings, to quench those thirsty, and lubricate those angry, for i have suffered and suffered; the pain and anguish." —Xah Lee, 2002.

Has anyone ever heard the phrase "don't speak ill of the dead?"

The truth is, most of us are going to leave behind a mixed legacy. Some good, and some bad. Traditionally we try to remember the good at times like this.

If one of your friends or family members died tomorrow, would you want to come across a discussion dissecting that person's every last flaw, or blaming them for far-reaching problems?

Given that Naggum was such an online personality in the functional programming world, it's likely that some of his friends are among us right now. Surely we can refrain from statements that increase their pain.

Naggum, or rather his online persona, was a prominent figure for a few years in certain communities. It's not inappropriate (and just as traditional) to debate someone's public legacy when they die.

Where did you learn etiquette, FOX News? Yammering endlessly about their "legacy", less than 24 hours after their passing, is not okay, particularly if you're vilifying their memory. That wouldn't be right even if it was a relatively hated public figure, and certainly not for a guy that was just a chronic Usenet poster.

Look, I get it. I concede your point that he said a lot of things that shouldn't have been said.

But you and kragen are basically being trolls now, and if you claim to be the ones who have some respect for empathy and civil discourse, you'll just zip it.

The reality of the world is there's a place for all kinds. The thoughtful speaker needs the passionate militant because not everyone has an open mind. Think Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

Moreover, the world needs these type of people on all sides to make sure the truth gets heard. Even if Mr. Naggum wasn't speaking the truth his opinion helped keep minds open to his side of things.

Honestly, as annoyed as I get at times by people like him I can also see how it's a noble pursuit. As much as people say they don't care what other's think just about everyone does to some extent. In that way it can't be an easy job to scream what you believe is the truth until people listen. So really people like Mr. Naggum are giving up a large piece of happiness to continue their devotion to what they believe is truth. That's admirable.

Erik was not a passionate militant; he certainly thought pretty hard, but he wasn't "thoughtful" in the sense of Martin Luther King. He was a bully and a sadist who devoted much of his life to emotional abuse of other people, and he did terrible damage to the Lisp community.

I'll quote briefly from what Erik wrote in http://groups.google.com/group/comp.lang.lisp/browse_thread/... , which someone linked to above:

    I'm overjoyed that I actually hurt your feelings.  I wish I could hurt
    your feelings so much you would commit suicide.  sadly, this has failed, 

    the only thing I regret is that I didn't see your fantastic stupidity as
    a result of your shattered psychology -- it's fairly uncommon to be so
    fucking retarded because of a psychological problem, but clearly, you
    have been immensely stupid all your life, and now that I come and hurt
    your stupid feelings, so you turn on me like a vicious and mad dog -- and
    that's exactly what you are to me: a mad dog in need of a bullet through
    his sick brain before he actually manages to hurt someone or himself.

    do the world a huge favor and commit suicide tonight.
I'm not sure what Janos Blazi did that Erik thought deserved this kind of a response (which he tried to keep private, incidentally; there's no telling how many hundreds of emails like this he may have sent that have never seen the light of day) but I do not see how this "helps keep minds open to his side of things" or how it is a "noble pursuit" or "admirable".

Also remember the duality of those two people: Martin Luther King at times called for violence and Malcolm X was mostly a peaceful protestor. It's easier to put them into categories but nobody is so bluntly one way or the other.

Just as I hear Paul Graham's name blasted frequently online, for a variety of reasons, I'm certain Naggum inspired as many people as he scared off. Never assume an internet personality is the whole story.

As someone who owes a lot to Paul Graham's influence in the very space (Lisp hacking) that Erik Naggum inhabited, I object to your implied equivalence between the two.

I'm certain Naggum inspired as many people as he scared off.

I realize you mean well, but this is glib. Erik Naggum, in his online capacity, was a consummate intellectual bully. (It's hard to imagine anything less true of PG than that.) You know how everyone talks about how dysfunctional the Lisp community is? Naggum did more than anyone else to poison it. Go read the archives of CLL and see for yourself how it starts out as a wellspring of intelligent and civil discourse and then decays under the influence of some smart, funny, nasty characters. The whole thing is a case study in the fragility of online communities.

As one longtime Lisper explained to me, Naggum was so smart and willing to put so much time into it that he became a torque on the whole thing. Most people who found his style obnoxious simply left, and for many (not all) who remained he became the local standard. People began to imitate him and it ultimately affected not only that group but the Lisp world as a whole. Many nice people have tried to repair the damage, but it may never happen: the niceness required to do so is orders of magnitude greater than the poison. It's like trying to clean up an oil spill.

Erik Naggum was obviously really smart and could be quite funny (I enjoyed that aspect of his writing), and for all I know he was a smashing great guy in person - but as far as the above-mentioned harm goes, those things made it worse, not better.

Edit: given that HN's defining quality is to foster intelligent and civil discourse in a way that doesn't get poisoned, your equivalence (and the place you posted it) are kind of ironic. But I know you weren't trying to make a huge point out of it.

I don't know much about Naggum, so it's entirely possible you're right. Apologies if I misinterpreted his relationship with the community.

No problem. Thanks for figuring out that I wasn't attacking you personally :)

Thank you for posting this. It's so utterly bizarre to see people attacking me for posting inappropriate personal attacks on Erik Naggum.

Kragen, please take some time to reflect on your own behavior in this thread. It is not bizarre in the least that people are downvoting you. Nobody is disputing the substance of your complaints about Erik, but your timing is completely inappropriate.

If Erik was a 10 on the asshole/sociopath scale, you're running at about 8.5 right now.

When did MLK call for violence? (I'm not disagreeing (I don't know enough about the topic), just curious).

A quick Google search isn't returning much, but it's hard to find a good set of terms to search for. I recall spending a lot of time in a class talking about it, though. At once point we were given quotes and asked to identify them as being either MLK or MX, and, not surprisingly in this context, all of the quotes about avoiding violence were from Malcolm X, and all of the ones demanding violent revolution were Martin Luther King.

I don't doubt the memory just because there's nothing more dangerous than a teacher who can't recognize a Bible quote and who then attributes modern meaning to the speaker. MLK was a reverend so he obviously quoted the Bible a lot and the Bible can have some violent imagery.

But I can't see the man who said this advocating violence of any kind...

"Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."

He also said, "It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence in this world; but non-violence or non-existence."

I've been unable to find any mention of using violence. But it is difficult to search for an answer.

It wasn't a Bible quotation. It was pretty specific and relevant to his time period. I'll try to find it but I haven't had success yet; apologies.

Unlike most of the posters there, I'm glad he's gone. The world is a better place without him, and maybe now the Lisp community can begin to heal.

You digust me. These types of remarks should be reserved for the lowest of the low, the dictators, the committers of genocide, the murderers, the rapists, etc.

A murderer typically only kills one person, causing loss to a few dozen. Naggum didn't, as far as I know, kill anybody; he merely turned a leading-edge technical community into a kind of twisted cult of personal abuse.

Every person alive today is a little bit poorer because of the poor state of Lisp implementations, which can largely be attributed to Naggum's vicious dominance on comp.lang.lisp, and so for a long time Lisp lacked any kind of widely-used forum for technical discussion among sane people.

Usenet was only predominant for about ten years. But programmers have been rejecting Lisp and the ideas behind it for nearly fifty. No matter how much we like it, it's not going to win. Think of it as your secret weapon à la pg.

Maybe you're young, but Usenet was the center of mass of programming discussions from shortly after its inception, in the early 1980s, until sometime around 2000–2005. So for about half of Lisp's lifetime, Usenet was central. And, as someone else pointed out, you can see a major difference in the tone of comp.lang.lisp before and after Erik's ascendancy — and its contributors. He may not have been the sole cause, but he was certainly one of them.

I think it's more accurate to say that programmers have been slowly accepting the ideas behind Lisp for fifty years: linked lists, recursion, dynamic typing, flexibly-sized data structures, conditional expressions, garbage collection, and a small core language with everything else in libraries were all present in (and central to!) 1959 Lisp, and very far from the mainstream in 1959. The main features of 1959 Lisp that have not been widely adopted are simple syntax and atoms. (Macros came later.)

For most of the time between then and now, new language features have tended to appear early on in Lisps and much later in more mainstream languages. Compare Python or Haskell list comprehensions with the Common Lisp LOOP macro, for example; or consider Loops/Flavors/CLOS.

I essentially don't use Lisp today because Lisp systems fell badly behind other languages in many ways: Python, Ruby, Lua, Objective-C, OCaml, and so forth are better options today. There's no mystery to why this is: people stopped working on Lisp systems. That was partly due to the AI winter, but it actually worsened in the 1990s. I don't know how much of that was because of Erik driving people away and how much was for other reasons.

This is utter bullshit.

I'm not going to defend Naggum's online style, but for God's sake, the man just died and he probably isn't even in the ground yet. There was plenty of time for a meta-debate regarding netiquette while he was active on Usenet, and there will be plenty of time for retrospectives on the subject in the future. This week, though--if not for Naggum's own sake, then for the sake of his grieving friends and relatives--can we just take a break from the subject?

Unlike most of the posters there, I'm glad he's gone. The world is a better place without him, and maybe now the Lisp community can begin to heal.

It's times like these I wonder why pg put in a cap on downmodding someone.

You may disagree with someone for what they post online, but intolerance like that is uncalled for.

Please read my quote from Naggum elsewhere in this thread. He would have no patience for your point of view!

You seem to be assuming that anyone who doesn't like your Naggum-hating in this thread must agree with Erik Naggum and share his attitudes. This is, to say the least, bizarre.

It is precisely because I think harshness of the sort Erik Naggum sometimes exhibited is generally harmful that I think your comments are objectionable and deserve every bit of downmodding they've received.

Did more good than harm, in my opinion. But he had this harsh style...

That is far too much. It's better that he's dead than expressing his views about programming on usenet? Wow.

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