RIP Erik Naggum (1965-2009)

I knew Erik, to the extent that it is possible to know him, from 1985. He was a Senior at our High School, Nesbru Videregående Skole, when I was a Junior. I have been familiar with him, then, for more than twenty years. Although he pursued a career in programming and I pursued one in Psychology, our paths crossed many times.

He was legendary while still at High School – sort of an alpha male amongst the protonerds, he programmed computers in machine code and had written a Pascal compiler. He was also an ardent Randian at the time, being seen as a liberalist outsider at Norway’s most conservative High School.

We both attended the University of Oslo. I knew him through the Science Fiction society, and through the Bulletin Board system, and through his interest in almost absolutely everything because we frequented many of the same discussion fora. His character sometimes fascineted me more than his knowledge.

He did not suffer fools gladly, nor did he observe social niceties. I will probably never know whether it was because he would not or could not. It is true that he very often clashed with collaborators, and that he did not hold jobs very long. There would always be two sets of reasons why – his and everybody else’s. And whereas he insisted that his relatively secluded existence was of his own choosing, I don’t think his life was very happy. Indeed, as from 1995 and onwards, people who knew I was familiar with him showed concern that his aggressive writing style had lost some of its spark. He had stared to sound bitter.

Knowing Erik, I know that anything I write about him would have been flatly rejected by him as «sludder» (hogwash). It is as if he did not want to be understood – which Psychologists would explain as a defence mechanism: To claim control where there is none. Nonetheless, here is – as I understand it – the thesis of his life:

The only way to improve your work or life is by understanding and examining why you do what you do.

And this is about the only point where I agree with Erik 100%. I see Erik’s life’s work as fundamentally correct: Most men lead lives not only in quiet desperation, but in blissful ignorance. Very few of my fellow Psychologists, nor anybody else, take any interest in philosophy, epistemology, nor the theories of science. Most people think science is a set of facts. It is not: What makes science valuable is the questions science asks, the justifications for asking those questions, and the methods for finding and evaluating the answers. All facts are temporary, and science is the key to improving or replacing them with more useful facts. Without an understanding of science, your view of the world lacks fundamentally important aspects.

Which is where Smallpaul here misses the point: Eriks legacy is not the works he produced, but his reflections on them. It is easy to recognize good artifacts, but not to understand why they are good. Everybody underestimates the reasons why the artifacts became good. This is amply demonstrated by the tragic attempts at copying, say, the iPhone with no understanding of why it is so popular. No, the iPhone is not popular because of Apple’s position in the marked, if your IT manager says so, he is incompetent and must be fired.

Erik’s peculiar brand of objectivity – he insisted that facts should speak for themselves and that the messenger was unimportant – did not always extend to himself. I have no idea how honest he was when the subject matter was technology or those areas where I pledge ignorance, but he and I often “discussed” psychology and philosophy. It occurs to me that his main philosophical objection to radical behaviorism was that he didn’t like me. I do want to speculate about the reasons why his objectivity often appeared clouded by emotion, but I don’t want to bother you with it. I don’t think I have sorted it out for myself yet.

Erik thought himself excepted from the confines of societal norms. He never, though, escaped them. It seems to me that his ambition was to get the rest of the world to accept him as he was, one individual by one, rather than adjusting himself to a point where he would fit in better. I think the alternative would have been a wiser and more efficient choice, and told him so from time to time. I don’t think I had any effect on him.

Although Erik insisted, vehemently, ardently, obsessively, that it’s impossible to escape from the natural laws discovered (or yet undiscovered) by science, his self-medication against the painful disease that haunted him through his last decennium indicates that he might have thought himself exempt from physical laws – his death was most likely due to side effects from abuse of anti-inflammatory drugs.

Erik was a character. His demeanor regularly ruined good discussions, and his view of the world only reinforced his withdrawal from society. His flames could be enjoyable unless one were at the receiving end. Among his few friends, this was never discussed much, rather, he sought friends who admired his lifestyle but would never chose it themselves.

His ways were never really challenged by anybody he trusted, at least not close to successfully. Rather, he generally received and was comforted by the message that it is okay to be the man he was. I think we should have known better, and I’m sorry I didn’t do better.