Increasingly Stealthy

Sep 15 2021

Scott Enderle is one of the rare people whose Twitter pages I frequently visit, apropos of nothing, just to read in reverse. A few months ago, I realized he had at some point changed his profile to include the two words “increasingly stealthy.” He had told me he had cancer months earlier, warning that he might occasionally drop out of communication on a project we were working on. I didn’t then parse out all the other details of the page—that he had replaced his Twitter mugshot with a photo of a tree reaching to the sky, that the last retweet was my friend Johanna introducing a journal issue about “interpretive difficulty”—the problems literary scholars, for all their struggles to make sense, simply can’t solve. I only knew—and immediately stuffed down the knowledge—that things must have gotten worse.

There’s a terrifying grace in that preparation. We’ve all seen the digital desiderata of the dead. Usually they’re painful in how they present someone going through ordinary motions who is now stilled; sometimes they’re wrenching because they narrate a fight in process that we know the person—like everyone—is destined to lose. Scott found it in him to prepare a kind of reassurance. He still cared what we all were saying, but was in the process of pulling off a little magic trick. Someday, soon, he would disappear into full stealth. The man was a writer, and I wonder if he started off with some more conventional words the Internet uses to describe this action—“mostly lurking, nowadays”?—before editing it up to something a little more marvelous.

A number of the testimonials to Scott I’ve seen since he died last Saturday emphasize his kindness, his decency, and his generosity. I’ve been thinking about how his stealthiness buoyed all of those. In my life he would just pop up from time to time through one window of the Internet or another, always a reassuring and welcome presence. In most senses I barely knew Scott. We never even met in person—we talked about doing so a few times, but even barely a hundred miles apart, it was easier for us with little kids to push it off. And his thoughts were generally so rich that it was easier to digest them through flurries of e-mails, blog comments, github issue threads. Once there were so many e-mails in a short period that we had to switch to the telephone to talk about vector algebra, although we were quickly talking about something else entirely. As the rest of the world switched to video-conferencing the last few years, I at least got to see his face.

But I primarily knew Scott as this intensely helpful, mentally probing figure that made writing, reading, and coding online rewarding. I’d often be chomping against some interpretive difficulty of my own, looking for the answer to some obscure question and find that it was Scott who had answered it years before. He was, I only now thought to check, one of the most helpful answerers of all time on Stack Overflow, the question-answer site that makes modern coding possible. (To give the numbers: 128,633 reputation so far, number 681 out of 15,000,000 registered users. He was there only to help: 859 questions answered and only three questions ever asked). The first time I became aware of Scott online was when he asked a kind and incisive question on Twitter about the meaning and metaphors of the Fourier transform that immediately jolted me into a clearer understanding of a problem I had been wrestling with for weeks. In subsequent conversations this would happen again and again. This gift was real, and he spread it far more widely than most. I know that there are many for whom his loss is a deep, personal rift; maybe it helps to know how long the tail of that loss goes. Before there were radio waves, to ‘broadcast’ meant to throw seeds as widely as you could while planting, sowing the whole field. In a field where drilling down and holding ideas tight can be overprivileged, Scott was a broadcaster.

I wonder if one reason Scott afford to be so egoless in his professional interactions was because his intellect was so utterly distinctive. I quickly came to know which kinds of questions were those I craved his insight on, but I never had any idea which direction he would take a problem. One thing I found intensely admirable was how confidently he would hold to a metaphor or an idea that would have no place in the universe if not for Scott—treating word vectors through the theory of algebraic sets, rehabilitating Fourier transforms for document encoding, most recently interpreting language models thermodynamic partition functions. The ones that excited him most cut across mathematics, language and metaphor with striking new routes no one would think to take. Even as he solved other people’s problems, he always found ways to refresh the global reservoir with more interesting ones.

Although he wrote everywhere, one of the places our tracks most overlapped was in the last years of personal blogging—one of the reasons I feel compelled to set down something here. Scott’s blog, The Frame of Lagado (look up the reference if you don’t know it), wasn’t a long-term project, but like everything else, it helped people think how to think. The last entry is a wry, funny, self-deprecating farewell to the medium for characteristically independent reasons. Evidently Scott somehow figured out how to set up Wordpress using sqlite instead of MySQL, which is not something which would ever occur to most people. Evidently, also, this proved to be untenable. As he posted more and more blog got longer and longer, the whole thing slowed to a crawl under the weight of his words. I remembered this as a purely comical piece, but on returning to it after thinking about Scott for most of the last 24 hours, I noticed that he had ended it with a promise and a quick quotation to a part of First Corinthians I principally know from the German Requiem. That context is appropriate. “For we have here no continuing city, but we seek the future. Behold, I show you a mystery.”

At some point, I will create a much better blog and republish some or all of the old posts here. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.

In the meanwhile — thanks for reading.

Thanks, Scott.