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.