I post my fair share of “RIP” articles here on the Accordion Guy blog, but this one’s special: it’s about Erik “Possum Man” Stewart, quintessential geek’s geek, and a friend whom I met while working at OpenCola.
When Cory Doctorow invited me to join his merry band at a startup called Steelbridge (it would later be renamed OpenCola), there couldn’t have been more than a dozen people at the company. There were many more surrounding us, as it had grown out of the IT department of an advertising agency and was still located deep within its heart. It made for a funny symbiosis, as Cory was calling in his friends to join Steelbridge, and as you might expect, they were are rag-tag collection of quirky oddballs. Occupying a zone of cubicles in the heart of an agency whose primary client was none other than Crazy Go Nuts University’s business school and MBA program, we were the mutants living among the well-dressed, well-coiffed normals.
Among this cast of characters was Possum Man, or just plain “Possum”. It would be a couple of weeks before I discovered that his name was Erik Stewart and that the name had come from a superhero he’d invented as a kid. “Possum Man”, like Spider-Man, had the powers of a possum: namely myopia and the ability to hang upside-down and snooze.
(I think the only time I ever called him “Erik” was when we spent the day touring San Francisco on early 2001 with his sister, who lived there.)
Possum had a great interest in multidimensional mathematics. He wrote a number of programs to try and visualize what 4-D and higher-dimension objects would look like, and you can see some of them on his site, which was naturally located at the domain n-space.org.
Once, over lunch, I quipped “In n-space, no one can hear you scream.”
“Are you certain about that?” he quickly responded. “What if certain dimensions have a property that does carry sound, even in a vacuum? What if I was really distant from you in three dimensions, but my mouth was right by your ear in the fourth? If I screamed then, wouldn’t the air expelled from my mouth carry the sound? Best of all, you’d hear me, but you wouldn’t see me.”
That was classic Possum: willing to argue about a point, not because he was a disagreeable sort — in fact, he was quite the opposite — but because it was an exploration of all the dimensions, all the possible space where an idea could go. He was truly multidimensional.
Possum juggled not only equations and ideas, but physical objects as well. He usually juggled three at a time, but I’ve seem him make a very solid attempt at keeping five in the air. We even joint-busked a couple of times, where we’d set up on a busy corner near Bloor and Bay Streets, with him juggling, me playing the accordion and the both of us splitting the proceeds, which often paid for lunch.
Possum was the classic “seeker”: always trying to learn something new, and then very generous with the knowledge he acquired. Like Cory, he went to the alternative school SEED, which gave him the freedom to pursue his courses in his typical learn-by-researching-then-doing autodidact way. As Cory writes in his elegy on Boing Boing, Possum refused to accept grades, credits and even a diploma for his hard work at school, feeling that they cheapened the learning experience, and that accumulating “points” isn’t the goal of learning anyway.
At OpenCola, Possum was a mentor, helping the junior programmers, some of whom were at their first job out of school, get their programming “sea legs”. Even we seniors benefitted from Possum; if there was some problem that seemed intractable, all we had to do was bounce the idea off Possum. He’d come up with interesting suggestions and ask questions, and even if his ideas were wildly impractical (and hey, it’s to be expected — he was a lateral thinker), just talking with him often brought you closer to a solution.
OpenCola effectively vanished in July 2001 when the company radically reorganized and laid off all but 7 people, including Possum. Possum, quite possibly the least materialist of us all, didn’t mind too much, as it would give him a chance to pursue more knowledge-based, less commercial interests. Among other things, he went to form Anarchist Free University, a virtual school where teachers propose readings and course material on a wiki, students help shape the course through adding and editing the wiki, and when there’s a “hey, we’ve got a good course here!” consensus, they get together in real life. Some of Toronto’s brightest hackers are products of AnarchistU.
Even after OpenCola, I ran into Possum at all sorts of places, and was glad to do so each time.
More than anything else, Possum was absolutely fearless. He was totally unafraid of seeming foolish or ridiculous, and was able to laugh along with other people when one of his experiments went comically awry. It wasn’t that Possum didn’t care about what other people thought — he was one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known — but his own sense of self-worth wasn’t based on what other people thought of him.
The world became a little bit poorer on Tuesday, May 29th when Possum died, apparently in his sleep. Don Hutton, a friend of Possum’s, writes in Possum’s memorial blog:
It is believed that he died in his sleep sometime early tuesday morning. At roughly 1:30 wednesday afternoon, after people had started to notice his absence, one of his roommates kicked in his bedroom door and found him. He appeared to have died peacefully and there is nothing to indicate suicide.
We’ll also be holding a gathering/wake at Trinity Bellwoods on Sunday from 4:00 to whenever people get exhausted, in the bowl area at the bottom of the hill. Bring food, musical instruments, stories about Erik, whatever seems appropriate. Everyone is welcome, just show up.
There will be a celebration of Erik’s life at Mount Pleasant, at 2:00pm on June 27th. It is open to all his friends. Please RSVP to tysonhead @ gmail.com before June 14th so that the family will have some idea of how many people will be showing up. The funeral is delayed to the 27th because of the unexpected nature of his death. For one thing his family is all over the globe and has to make travel arrangements. For another, a full autopsy had to be done as this was an unexpected death without the attendance of a physician. There will be no viewing of the body since, according to his wishes, Erik will be cremated.
Unfortunately, my travel plans put me far away from either gathering — I’m in Tampa right now and will be when the impromptu gathering at Trinity Bellwoods park takes place this Sunday, and I’ll be in Manila with my family when his official funeral happens on the 27th. Hence, this online tribute to Possum, with pictures from my own collection.
Requiescat in pace, Possum. I am a smarter, kinder and better person for having known you.