Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Bill XCIX Phillips

I was dawdling on Facebook last night, and clicked on "Notifications," wondering what (if anything) that might do. I scrolled down the widget, and noticed that someone I didn't recognize commented on something I had written, so I was curious and clicked. That someone was the sister of Bill Phillips, telling me that he had died back in January. I got a Facebook notice that Bill's birthday was June 3, so (something I don't often do) I sent him a little note. The response came on June 8, but . . . well, I checked my email trash and there was no mention of it among 1628 deleted Facebook messages. Somebody's algorithm sure sucks. I should have noticed something was amiss when he stopped posting after January 3, but I just didn't pay that much attention, even less than usual this year.

I first met Bill around 1978-79. I was working for a typesetting shop in New York City, and the co-owner decided to buy a computer and hire a consultant to set up an accounting system. The computer was a low-end PDP-11, and Bill was the consultant (or maybe just the guy the consultant assigned to do the work). At the time I was trying to read electronics textbooks, thinking I might go back to college and study engineering. I was making slow progress, especially on the analog stuff, but at some point I picked up a book on programming in Pascal and it seemed like the easiest thing in the world. I decided to buy a personal computer. My first choice was something called the Pascal Microengine, but when the dealer couldn't deliver, I settled for an Apple II. I wrote some trivial programs in Basic, but my real interest was designing my own typesetting systems software. I talked to Bill about this, and we wound up pitching the co-owner on the idea. He gave us an allowance to buy some hardware, and I wrote a 300-page functional spec for a distributed, networked multinode editing ("front end") system.

By the time we gave up on the project, Bill had steered me toward programming in C and using an editor called MINCE (a recursive acronym for "MINCE Is Not Complete Emacs" -- basically, a text editor inspired by Richard Stallman's LISP-based EMACS editor, written in C to run on a Z-80 microprocessor). MINCE came with partial source code, and the documentation was the author's Master's Thesis. Both turned out to be remarkably fine tutorials, and Bill was my first brilliant mentor. I left Wizard in 1980 and landed a job as a Software Engineer at Varityper in East Hannover, NJ. Varityper made "direct-entry" phototypesetters, which set type incrementally as you keyed the text and commands in. But they had just started a project to build a multi-user system not unlike the one I had designed, so they hired me to consult on that, then wound up throwing a number of tricky programming assignments my way. I spent the next three years there, then moved to Massachusetts to work for Compugraphic, their largest competitor, and a year later moved on to a start-up working on color prepress software for package design: Contex Graphics Systems.

While I was learning lots of new things in my various jobs, Bill was mostly stuck babysitting legacy systems in New York, which left him in something of a rut. We kept in touch over those years: not close, but I knew he was having trouble finding work in New York, and that he was especially fond of Boston. When I started taking on management duties, I had the opportunity to hire a couple of consultants, so I offered Bill a job, and a place to stay until we turned it into a regular job, and he and his wife Jane moved to Cambridge. Over the next couple years, Contex went through a lot of ownership trouble, eventually being sold to Xyvision shortly before their main business ("tech pubs" systems, again similar to my original design) crashed. I had to lay Bill off then, and I don't think he ever made much of a living again. But Jane had found a decent job, he loved Cambridge, and he was very active in local computer clubs, so he was reasonably content. I saw him socially, and tried to rope him into my Ftwalk project, but he resisted.

After I left Massachusetts and wound up back in Kansas, I picked his brain for various projects -- among other things, he made a contribution to robertchristgau.com. After Jane died in late 2011 he moved back to New York. I saw him at least three times there -- most recently in June 2016. He had gotten into political interests, adopting "XCIX" as his middle name to signify solidarity with the 99%, and was the first person I knew to get involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign. For some reason we had never talked about politics back in our initial period -- though we talked a lot about music (not that we had much in common: he turned me on to some quality folk music, but by then he was mostly into new age, and I was more into punk, funk, and avant-jazz).

First inkling I had of his politics must have been in 1989 when Abbie Hoffman died, and Jane (I think it was) suggested they should go to the funeral to show solidarity. I didn't get the impression they had a direct connection, but that does say something about where they came from. As I'm writing this, I realize there's so much about him I don't know. He was born in Queens, a few years older than me but I'm not sure how many -- not a lot -- and was living in Queens when I first met/visited him. His mother was still alive when he moved back to New York. He had two sisters, I think, but I never met either. They had a son, who was close to ten when I first met him. Went to college in Binghampton, and at least for a while turned into a Dead Head. Last I knew they didn't seem to be close, but I don't think I ever met the son as an adult. Toward the end he seemed worn and weary, and felt trapped. He talked like he might leave New York, possibly for Washington State, but I doubt he had the energy.

I do remember lots of little things. He always had a beard, which I can't remember not being grizzled white but it may have been blond way back when. He always looked rumpled, moving slow and speaking softly. He liked model trains and western shirts -- had a whole rack of them bought mail-order from Sheplers, the famous outfitter in my own home town. (I had a few myself, though I regarded them more as a joke. But I don't think I ever saw his trains.) He used the alias "Old Professor Bear," and called his web business Shoestring Projects. He spent most of his disposable income on books and records, especially books, and lived in a constant state of hopeless clutter -- no doubt a big part of the reason he had such trouble picking up and moving. I was taken aback at one point when he was at Contex and I noticed the title, How to Work for a Jerk -- but I already owned the same title.

He liked assembly code, working "close to the machine," and his favorite programming stories were clever optimizations. At one point I was taken with the ideal of "simple and elegant." He came back with: "but why make something simple and elegant when you can make it complex and wonderful." Not really the words of a first-rate engineer, but he made a marvelous mentor, and a fine friend. One of the sweetest, most generous people I've ever known.

I'm really staggered that we've lost him.