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Some thoughts at the passing of John Bailo

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2016 9:28 pm    Post subject: Some thoughts at the passing of John Bailo Reply with quote

John Anthony Bailo
Born October 22, 1960
Died December 25, 2015

Readers may know John Bailo as the co-founder and lead contributor to I'm sorry to report that John passed away late last year from a hypertensive heart condition while he was parked on the shoulder of the road.

John and I had a great many years of friendship together, plus a few years where that wasn't quite possible. I'll miss his wit and courage, and his loyalty. It is in that spirit I share these reflections.


I remember John wrote a poem while in college (for a little while it was a bit of a thing), and I remember being intrigued but somewhat disappointed. I haven't read it in years, and don't remember it so much as I recall


The story, touching on a Motown star,
by filling to the margins of the page,
it filled the silver screen:

the screen he loved.

And, the words
tended to
tumble down


Now I wonder if I judged it unfairly, because I don't recall ever asking him to read it out loud. And I wonder what he would do today, if he were here to try.


OpenOffice gave me the chance to express my thoughts in a variety of ways. John might've appreciated the gesture if I had chosen to write about him using a spreadsheet, or a powerpoint-style presentation format. The form of this collection of text has yet to gel into something recognizable, but for some jobs, nothing else will do.

Speaking of “text”, the place and power of text were topics where John and I had considerable overlap in our thinking. At the time that John developed the “Texeme Construct” idea, being in favor of “text” would have been drowned out by the perennial surges of interest in video, virtual reality, immersion, etc, and could be seen as becoming a niche communication modality, bordering on quaint.

How broadly “the Texeme construct” extended I never was able to learn.

It was absolutely defined and meaningful, and it was a kind of a joke. It was a signpost, a reminder, a smokescreen, and an invitation to find out more. It was about the mastery that the command line offered, compared to the infantile interactions that have come to dominate our computer environment. We don't see it anymore, but John did. Pointing is what a baby does.

It was long variable names, and control of information flow. And Marshall McLuhan was in there. It was the short essay, and the online commentary. It was a cross between a mathematical formula, and obscure science fictional conceit. It was a-blog-for-everyone, and opinions scattered across dozens of online gathering places. I'm extrapolating wildly now: texeme is democratic access, texeme is meritocracy, since more knowledge leads to more mastery, texeme is a place to take a stand, either atavistic, or as a hold-out against the tide of Mad Max and Idiocracy. That, and largely, I estimate, Texeme Construct was his own private joke. A concept so large could never become just one thing. And so it went.

John had the kind of mind that kept all those notions going all at once. He was able to instantly pivot to either “lean in” and carry your logic maybe a little too far, or to flip the bit, and make the clearest possible case for the opposite of what most people just accept without thinking. Conversation with John was often “bracing” in a way that few others I've encountered have been.

I seem to recall that he participated in debate during his high school years, and it showed, in a way. Happily, John seemed to exemplify the fluidity of thinking that debating encourages, but not the stiff, pedantic personal style that forms the debate team stereotype.

The internet gave John the ability to turn his love of debate, of ideas, his bravery, and his passion into a lifestyle that allowed him to have an active role in the world around him. That role, as a member of what could be called the “commentariat” would have seemed nearly unimaginable only a few generations ago.

John and I grew up in a very different world than exists today. For instance, maybe he had it a little better, but I remember being excited that we could suddenly get four TV channels, about recording top-40 songs from the radio to a portable cassette recorder, about a chance to visit the “001” section of books at the county library.

At the outset of our freshman year at Princeton, we all attended a welcoming speech and the only image I retain from that speech is that of the firehose: the firehose, drinking from which, a Princeton education is like (as Yoda might mention). I don't think I felt the full power of President Bowen's comparison quite then, since I was very thirsty, I suppose. But now I feel it full force, and that may be another thing I shared with John.


I recently gathered statistics relating to the number of books published each year. The number of books published annually has generally increased every year. Likewise for the number of self-published books. It interested me to try to compare their numbers with what I thought of as “book-equivalents” in the area of online essays and commentary. My estimates led me to believe that currently, each of these 3 areas (publishing, self-publishing, and online writing) constituted about a third of the total “book” output.

Consider all the books that had ever been published by the time we heard the firehose speech in 1978, and the challenge that such an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience would pose to someone who wanted “just a sip”. Now consider that same volume being generated every year! In the face of such a torrent, some would give up, some might go mad, but someone like John would keep going,
would keep searching for that important fact, that insight, that innovation..


We shared a house for a time, John, Janet, and I, and Francesca, Ed, and Dave. For a time, John and I were nearly inseparable as friends, haunting TV lounges across campus, and acting out mock heroic battles in the style of Federation officers, humming our own background musical accompaniment because nobody else volunteered for the job.

In John, I saw someone whose mind seemed to be functioning at a high-level, but unpredictable, whose thought process might not always lead to a good immediately usable answer, but which often led to out-of-the-ordinary insights. Even then, John had the gift of seeing the world through an inverted lens, to seize on the overlooked observation that turned conventional thinking on its head.

We shared a passion for science fiction, and the power of humor. I know that I had a bit of a zany streak back then, but John was primed and ready for us to inaugurate the “Olden Museum of Modern”. All our exhibits, alas, were fated to end up as bumps under coatings of paint, or as scattered pennies as Modernity's moment came and went.

We called ourselves “the twins” and only recently have I gained a little understanding as to why. More below.

John's fascination with television affected me deeply. Changing channels can reveal the hidden truth, and show us the meaning of why someone wanted us to see something. Reality can be seen as only what exists on a channel, and the pauses between programs, the dead air, the mix-ups, these are the rare clues that let us recognize and escape what might later be called “the matrix”. Since I suppose we were (happily) easily amused, we found meaning and humor from “conducting” the switching between channels, discovering a kind of conversation between the programs.

For their wedding, I bought John and Janet what may have been the only new black & white television available for miles around, just because John loved the aesthetics of black and white. Janet is so good that I don't even remember her crossing her eyes.



I had what turned out to be a good idea. Since I had already filled out some online questionnaires at the website of the University of Pennsylvania, I decided to try to do a test over, but to try to imagine myself as John. Actually, my first attempt was a bit underwhelming. Given so many potential sources of error and bias, the test's result that I was 5-10% “happier” than John didn't seem very helpful.

I got more insight from a different test, the “VIA Survey of Character Strengths”. It consists of 240 questions, in which the test-taker responds within a scale (agrees strongly, etc.) to a statement for each. Again, my approach was problematical in the extreme. Only partway through did I realize I needed to answer not how he would answer so much as how I would answer for him, because a survey that purported to depict how he saw himself would be harder to make sense of than one that captured what I saw of him. Also, I started to let my answers for him accentuate his contrarian stances.

An example: For a question like “Everybody should be treated equally”, I could sense John's spirit coiling up like a snake. He is the kind of man who, in a flash, immediately sifts through the history of a dozen arguments, definitions, counterarguments, categories, and strategies for responding, all in a flash. As his proxy I honored his principled contrarian approach. I “disagreed”, knowing it would count against the survey's view of his leadership and team skills.

This test generates a list of 20 “strengths” whose ordering depends on the answers given. I wanted to understand the strengths we shared, and where we differed. I found many results surprising, but logical in hindsight. For example, I was genuinely surprised to learn that John and I shared 4 of our top 5 strengths: creativity, love of learning, critical thinking, and curiosity. Of course we were twins! Perhaps.

Even more telling though, is where we differed. Where “humor” was a top-5 strength for me, “bravery” was a corresponding top strength for John. It surprised me that I had to learn this from an online test, something that someone else might easily have known without thinking: that John was a brave man.

Now I think about us differently. The 4 out of 5 things gave us a common ground, but our differences meant that there was also something for us to teach each other, something we could each learn.


John and I collaborated on a number of occasions. We went through quite a few business ideas, which I mostly viewed as enjoyable exercises in pure analytics and strategy. Yes, we really did have a system for the lottery, based on spreadsheet analysis of actual lottery results. The fact that our strategy increased payouts by 3 percent was not enough to make playing profitable. We researched the then early “900” numbers, looking for niches: horoscopes? Dictation? It never quite gelled.

Sometimes you just need a naive outsider. He came to me a little late one time: The execution seemed excellent, but he hadn't even heard for himself how odd his “Wallpaper for Windows” product sounded.

He shared my strong interest in the architecture of Christopher Alexander, as expressed in Alexander's book “A Pattern Language”. One day we learned the great man himself was to be supervising a project on nearby Whidby Island, as a commission associated with the Giraffe Project. I think we missed the best chance to see him, and so decided just to go check it ourselves.

What we found was something I only encounter occasionally these days, a perfect storm of wrongness. Error piled upon conceit, buttressed by acute misunderstanding, and entirely wrong-headed, counterproductive, and leaving just a plain sour note. I still marvel at how people can allow themselves to become so ridiculous without even noticing. But, of course, we were ridiculous too. Sometimes 1 + 1 is more than 2, and somehow John and I reinforced each other's chutzpah impulses until we found ourselves standing on the roof of a oversize house under construction, pretending to remark on structural details we were observing, while the great man conferred with his husband and wife clients on the far side of the large roof section. For some reason, they did not reach out to involve us in their conference, though the husband did finally approach us, saying “My wife would like for you to leave.” Needless to say, this utterance added fuel to our later mockeries, but this seemed only fair because it cut both ways.

I suppose our most concrete collaboration was on the website “”. John posted as many as a thousand articles there. For a long while, that website was a repository for each of us, for our respective obsessions and stray observations. John left a lot to know him by.

Occasionally we tangled. I liked him as an adversary because he fought fair. And because he could make me see the limits of my own confidence, or even to adopt one of his contrarian viewpoints. Bracing indeed.


For me, my favorite memories of John are of us camping in Central Oregon. I like to find remote areas, or what I call the least popular places in Oregon, and sometimes John would come along. Some of our best conversations were at the Deschutes viewpoint and a place I called the Maxfield Parrish Beauty Spot. From John I learned to insert the word “virtual” whenever I hear the word “consensus”.

John felt safe enough to try out lines on me.
“Why do you hate America?” This didn't work – I laughed.
“Science isn't a democracy” and spurred me to formulate a response: “Does Pluto exist?”
He had the kind of mind that saw pretty much instantly the implications of my question.

One time when we were in a remote location, my van's battery died, so John and another friend set off on the 5 mile walk to pavement, in hopes of finding someone to help. Apparently, they encountered a work crew of students measuring plants, but the supervisor would not allow her vehicle to rescue us, due to liability I suppose. John tangled with I guess that government functionary, and when we finally drove past them after finding a more congenial rescuer, John shouted out “I pay your salary” to the students and supervisor. I could tell he was serious, even though, as a resident of Washington State, camping in Oregon, the claim was even more metaphorical than usual.


I've never quite been able to pin down John's relationship with contrarianism. Is it a stance? A tool? A lifestyle? Innate? Whichever the case, the times we had together are what really matters.

I sense his influence on my thinking when I re-consider (in a contrarian lens) topics like the Portland housing crisis (caused by current residents not leaving Portland at their usual rate), or the BP oil spill (on a geological scale its not rare, and oil is food).

A week ago I would have only thought about this contrarian spirit I keep mentioning, But now I know I'll also remember John by learning to ask myself what I would do if I were braver.

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