A Tribute to Norman De Forest

Norman De Forest's life was so diverse and busy that it does not lend itself easily to any kind of summation. Let me tell you the bits of it I know.

Most people's introduction to Norman came from writing an email to userhelp at Chebucto and having Norman write back with several pages of detailed instructions to resolve the problem and pass on some of the problem's historical context or amusing trivia about the problem.

And that's how I came to know him too.

I first met Norman in person months after seeing his name on countless userhelp answers. He'd be in the Second Cup waiting like the rest of us poor folks for a bit of time on the then only public graphical internet access in Halifax. I'd run into him from time to time at the local science fiction bookstore and we'd trade recommendations.

Then I got into a jam. I'd borrowed a set of MS-DOS install disks to use on my computer but they did not work, the disks were infected with a virus. I couldn't give back the disks infected and nothing would clean them off. I didn't know if I had infected them or they'd come to me that way, but it didn't matter, I could not afford to replace them.

I brought the disks to Norman. The disks were for MS-DOS 6.20, a rare variety as a lost lawsuit had required Microsoft to change the software. Norman disappeared for several days then handed me the disks and a six inch high stack of dot matrix printer paper detailing the steps he'd taken to fix them, in case I wanted to check his work or undo it.

Norman was like that with everyone. If someone had a problem, they got back double the solution they'd expected. It was almost a vice with Norman that if you asked him a question in person you'd better be prepared for an extended answer.

Norman was a champion of disabled access to the internet and would take it on himself to plead their case to those websites not accessible to disabled persons. His help was not limited to online letter-writing, Norman worked with individuals directly, freely donating his time and resources.

He was a premier anti-spam fighter and worked with many others around the globe to battle the endless waves of rubbish sent out. In the early days of spam, you could sometimes reply directly to the spammer. One of his dodges was to reply to pornographic spam as a child, saying that he didn't think his mommy and daddy would approve.

Norman was always working to better himself, from the mounds of computer books that filled his room to working on logic puzzles. I gave him a DOS-based logic game called Sherlock once. It's a game where there are six columns of six icons, each of the icons having six possible values. There's six faces, six different color houses, six fruit, six numbers, six highway signs and six letters. You're given a number of clues about the icons and then must deduce the correct locations for all thirty six icons. There are 65,000 different games and Norman played them all, even discovering one where the clues were deceptive. When this wasn't enough he made his own icons out of random geometric shapes and played the game again. I tried playing it with his new icons and it was many times more difficult. Norman's games page.

Norman was the head of Chebucto Userhelp, a member of the Technical and Policy Committees on Chebucto and was several times honoured at the Chebucto AGM for his volunteer contributions. It is safe to say that Norman has helped hundreds, even thousands of people over the last decade.

For all his good work Norman lived in extreme poverty of the type very few people who have not experienced it for themselves can imagine. He lived in a run-down two room flat with flickering lights and a leaky ceiling that frequently came down in chunks, piled high with textbooks and novels, shelves full to spilling with books, floppy disk archives and computer parts. The guest chair was a stack of computer texts you would balance on with just enough empty floor room to form paths to the room's various points of interest. The tv was a black and white portable with broken rabbit ears that got two and a half local stations. Norman's computers were always bottom of the line; for two years he did not even have a hard drive but relied on a ramdisk, frequently losing hours of work at a go when the lights flickered and the computer rebooted. People would give Norman better computers but he was always worried about messing with them, an odd attitude for a tech wizard, and he would keep using whatever basic gear he was most comfortable with. He would sit at his computer and chainsmoke rollie cigarettes and drink instant coffee mixed with hot tap water then fall asleep where he worked and pick up where he left off when he awoke. He was scrupulously honest: he was proud of paying the shareware fees for any software he used and liked.

His integrity even lent itself to a little thing like not giving away the secret to me of how to wave a dead chicken, a rite of passage in the tech world where a new user is supposed to figure out on their own the magical trick to post to a particular moderated news group. It took me days of trying to manage it and Norman was mum about it the whole time, as he was supposed to be.

What I'm most going to miss about Norman is his wisdom and perspective. Here at Chebucto there are sometimes differences of opinion on the best way to do things but Norman could always be counted on to give a cogent and even-tempered analysis of the situation. He would always remind us that there were - and still are - lots of people being left out of this brave new digital world we are building for ourselves and that Chebucto Community Net was one of the few bridges remaining for those left back.

I am one of the people who successfully crossed this bridge and I owe part of that to Norman De Forest.


- Andrew D. Wright
4 February 2006




People have asked about a memorial for Norman De Forest. He wasn't religious, his charity came from within himself and if you are one of the people who have been touched by his charity, then my advice is to pay it forward. Do something good. Volunteer. There is no shortage of need out there.


Norman's web site

Beacon news story



Back to the Beacon



Second Addendum

The Tributes of Others



Date: 4 Feb 2006 14:40:16 -0500
From: Neil Schwartzman
To: cauce-canada-announce
Subject: R.I.P. Norman De Forest

Longtime anti-spammer and CAUCE Canada member Norman De Forest has passed away.

There is a short eulogy here: http://beacon.chebucto.info/news.shtml

Mr. De Forest will be sorely missed. In all my dealings with Norman, he was always kind, his comments well-considered, and most helpful and wise. The Canadian and indeed the world anti-spam communities are poorer for his death.

On behalf of CAUCE Canada I wish to express our sincere condolences to Norman's family and friends.

-- Neil Schwartzman
Chair, Canadian Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email



Date: Fri, 03 Feb 2006 21:56:18 -0800
From: Keith Christensen
Subject: Any online memorials planned for Mr de Forest? (I'll always remember him as Norm... )

Norm was a constant source of humor as well as wisdom to those of us who battle spam.

To me he was also a fellow boffin in the true British sense.

We were both self-taught electronics nuts with some lack of social graces; "stone age geeks"; and war-story swappers.

We surprised each other that there were still people who could fathom transconductance and pentodes; valves to Norm and tubes to me.

I'll miss him.



Date: Fri, 03 Feb 2006 17:55:15 -0500
From: Sam
Newsgroups: alt.comp.virus, news.admin.net-abuse.email
Subject: Re: Norman De Forest - sad news

Oh, dear.

Norman was one of those people who -- although I, and many others, never met in person -- was always able to express the warmness of his heart through his written words. He will be missed. God bless him.



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