Update: Pieter chose euthanasia around 1pm Belgian time, October 4th, 2016.
Everything else in this post is still accurate.
The process of dying and the moment of death are topics Western culture doesn’t like to talk about. We hide them behind walls, in rooms filled with adjustable beds, beeping machines, and uncomfortable visitor furniture. We ask doctors to make the important decisions, to do everything they can. We speak in hushed tones as relatives and friends troop in and back out, gripping kleenexes and determined to be strong. It would be disrespectful to pry, we tell ourselves. Whether that’s true or not, our beliefs about what’s appropriate constrain our responses. And thus we end up treating death, the very last thing that all of us will ever do, as if it, and the process of arriving at it, were something inherently shameful.
“What’s that like?” is the fundamental question of phenomenology. What is it like to die? What will it be like, when our own times come? The question is at the same time car-wreck levels of fascinating and difficult to look at straight on. Our literature and poetry explore it, but always from the underlying perspective of the living; the dead do not write. What the living take away is that death may come suddenly and far too easily, or lingering and reluctantly, but at the last moment there is no flinching away from it. The living are always left with an unanswerable question: is it going to be like that for me?
I haven’t had a good relationship with death. My grandparents died one by one throughout my childhood, starting around age 8. About the only thing I remember about my maternal grandmother’s death is my paternal grandparents taking my sister and me out to dinner during the funeral and wondering why no one would tell me what the hell was going on. A few years later, my paternal grandmother developed breast cancer. She came to Houston for treatment at M. D. Anderson, famous for its cancer research, but hospital-acquired pneumonia got her. I didn’t watch her decline as it happened — perhaps my parents thought they could shield their children from it — but I saw its effects written on my father’s face. He developed an eyelid tic that didn’t go away until after the funeral. I mentioned it exactly once, felt like a giant asshole, and never brought it up again.
My maternal grandfather was an exception to the developing rule. He keeled over from a stroke one morning, in front of his refrigerator. When he didn’t show up for his golf game, his golfing buddy Helen called the police, and there they found him. It was July 4th weekend, and all the local ministers already had vacation plans, so my extended family put together our own version of a funeral, with readings from a high school English textbook (Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” if memory serves) and Slaughterhouse-Five. He didn’t quite die doing what he loved, but he died about to do what he loved, which is almost as good. I learned that open-casket funerals involve a lot of stage makeup and nobody thinks the corpse looks anything like it did alive, but material disappointments aside, getting together with your loved ones to create something in the face of death — even something symbolic and ephemeral — feels right.
Still, those were the deaths of childhood. Children, at least if they’re lucky, have parents to handle the heavy lifting of death: making phone calls, negotiating with funeral directors, executing the estate. The deaths you encounter as an adult are an entirely different ball game. Sometimes, the dead or dying person’s family, rather than your own, hides the details from you. Just as often, though, the person does that themselves.
By 2008, I knew that Eric Tiedemann wasn’t doing well. So did a lot of other people, the folks he IRCed with, but none of us knew what to do about it. Too depressed to leave the house, but too anxious to let anyone in, over the course of a few years he’d gone from cheerful burbling about compilers and buttocks to rarely speaking in channel or /query, even when spoken to. He’d fall offline and reconnect, fall offline and reconnect, without saying a word. Until one day he fell offline and didn’t come back on. Everyone worried, and I volunteered to go down to his house and check on him. If the flies clustering around the windows of his house hadn’t tipped me off, the sickly, overpowering smell when I opened the dining room window should have. But I didn’t take the hint, climbed through the window, and walked down the hall to his bedroom anyway, and that’s how I found out what a two-week-old corpse looks like. I don’t recommend it; very little about one looks human anymore. The coroner determined it an accidental overdose, but nobody takes that much MDMA accidentally.
Grief counseling is fairly easy to arrange, provided someone with the requisite executive function to arrange it is available. Finding-a-body counseling, not so much. My husband, Len, promised me that if he ever killed himself, I wouldn’t have to be the one to find him, and to his credit, he made good on that promise. I knew he was struggling with depression, and I knew he didn’t want me to talk to anyone about it because he was afraid of jeopardizing his academic career. So I kept his secret, and in return, without telling me the real reasons why, he quietly made sure that I would be out of the country when he committed suicide. That a friend of ours, an EMT, would be en route, but not soon enough that there would be anyone left to rescue. That nobody would have to know.
And then last year there was Caspar Bowden, who faced his own cancer with a characteristically British stiff upper lip. Like with the windows at Eric’s, I should have gotten the hint when he tweeted asking whether anyone could help transcribe his memoirs. But the rest of his Twitter feed was so practical, so focused on beating it, so steadfastly free of doubt, that he had me convinced too. When word went out that he’d died, it hit me with the intensity, though not the character, of a betrayal.
All of this primarily goes to say that it is profoundly liberating — more than I had really thought possible — for someone in my life to die without all the goddamn secrecy for once.
I haven’t gotten to know Pieter nearly as well as I’d like to, at least not in the meatspace-socializing ways that usually constitute getting to know someone. From his writing, though, I discovered someone who cares deeply about some of the same questions I do: how does anyone ever really understand anyone else, anyway? Or make themselves understood? How can we communicate more swiftly and surely, knowing that no matter how reliable our silicon and the algorithms that run on it, we’re still ambiguous, insecure creatures in an analog world? What do the patterns of our communication say about the work we do and the lives we live? How can we intentionally use and modify those patterns to make voluntary cooperation easier, but exploitation, defection, and coordination failures harder?
Pieter wrote protocols. It’s the thing he did. He wrote messaging protocols, and security protocols, and code contribution protocols, and quite a lot of advice on how to write protocols — the most important of which is “only as much protocol as necessary, and no more.” An elegant protocol can be a beautiful thing, but it has no inherent meaning outside of the context of the relationships it facilitates. The Collective Code Construction Contract, for example, is deliberately designed to make collaborative software development easier and bikeshedding harder:
- Maintainers SHALL NOT make value judgments on correct patches.
- Maintainers SHALL merge correct patches from other Contributors rapidly.
In other words, if contributors are arguing over a properly formatted-and-submitted patch, the maintainer’s obligation is not only to refrain from the argument, but to merge it immediately and let people have it out in code instead of comments. Bikeshedding over. He observed the patterns that arose in cultures, both community and corporate, and how those patterns gave rise to structure that soared, sagged, or collapsed entirely under their own weight. From those observations, he built prototypes of robustly self-modifying systems, and knew enough to get the hell out of the way when they started self-modifying without needing his help any more — a decision point every parent eventually reaches.
There’s a dark irony in the fact that soon, a champion of elegant, corruption-resistant systems will fall to an internal systemic cascade failure. Cancer is a master of biological signals intelligence and counterintelligence; it hides from the immune system, ignoring neighboring cells’ signals to stop growing as it constructs its own vasculature and internal structure. It also takes hostages, recruiting non-cancerous bystanders into the tumors it builds. In a very real sense, cancer hijacks and exploits the body’s native signaling mechanisms, introducing its own to engineer its secret defection, eventually killing the body that spawned it. It’s hard to get away from a self-modifying system that tightly coupled to you, that survives by diverting every resource of yours it can away from you and to itself.
So: we’re going to lose him. But he gets to decide the place and time, in a manner prescribed by Belgian medicine, pharmacy, and law. That alone takes away a lot of the ambiguity, the anxiety of knowing that the end is coming but not when or exactly how, the bracing for the eventual shock. And since a protocol describes a relationship, who’s on the other end of this protocol for dying? Well, it’s all of us: his readers, his users, his friends, his family. Like his other protocols, it embodies a number of contracts; to crib from his own words, a contract is “an agreement that lets different [people] … work together.” Isolation with one’s own sense of loss is one of the worst parts of other people’s deaths, and presumably one’s own as well. Humanity has many social technologies for connecting with others in the aftermath of a death, but precious few for the run up to it, most of them heavily formalized and limited in scope. Pieter’s is an unprotocol, only as formal as it needs to be, a scaffolding on which to build all that which remains to be done in the time remaining — a deliberately general scope, because even with social support, everyone comes to terms with tragedy in their own way. Madeleine L’Engle described a much more rigid form in her novel A Wrinkle in Time, but its function is just as flexible:
In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet…There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter…And each line has to end with a rigid pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet…But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants…You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.
Pieter Hintjens will most likely be dead before too much longer. In the grand scheme of things, so will you. So will I. Most of us are in the fortunate position of not having to think about that too hard, at least until a friend’s impending death preoccupies us. But this time it’s different. This time it’s bounded, rather than a source of rumination and dread that creeps in to occupy as many available CPU cycles as it can. Which frees up resources for me to say something about this protocol, this last hack of Pieter Hintjens’: it is working as designed. The fact that he’ll even get to receive the ACK is the cherry on top.
Thank you, Pieter. I’m going to miss you, though of course I’ll see you again before you go. If you have to go, the best way to do it is doing what you loved most, and you are.