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Oliver Habicht dies of pancreatic cancer at age 53

When we notice the passing of TidBITS, there is one person who was important in computing or the Internet like Steve Jobs, Doug Engelbart, Bill English, Robert Noyce, Marvin Minsky, Larry Tesler, John Perry Barlow, Aaron Swartz and even Eudora Welty. We also want to honor those who played key roles in technology publishing, such as Cary Lu, Tom Negrino, Robert Hess, Don Crabb, David Bunnell and Patrick McGovern. But sometimes we remember people who have touched our lives in the Macintosh world in smaller, more personal ways, such as Martin Minow, Evan Michael Gross and Walter Van Lerberghe.

Oliver Habicht, who died on September 25, 2020 after suffering from pancreatic cancer for two years, falls into another, more rare category. You probably will not recognize his name, even though he has been mentioned in TidBITS five times since 1

993 and once wrote an article for us (see “Photo Safe II offers worry-free travel backups,” February 11, 2009). You may have also noticed his name in recognition of dozens of Take Control titles: when he was laid off from a job a while back, he helped with many books, did technical editing and link checking, tasks that he continued for a while to and even after he found a new position.

But unlike almost everyone else associated with TidBITS, Oliver Tonyas and my friend were first, and were later personally and professionally bound in the technology world. He ended up spending 30 years as head of IT at Cornell University, and enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame when he created the “pumpkin camera” – a live video feed of the huge pumpkin that was somehow pointed at the top of Cornell’s 173-foot bell. tower in 1997 and stayed there for several months. He even got a mention in the New York Times then, and 20 years later, the Cornell Daily Sun covered his revival of the site. Note that the pumpkin was also covered by Mark Frauenfelder at BoingBoing, and the latest (?) Story was written by none other than technical journalist Farhad Manjoo, the Cornell class in 2000 and then editor-in-chief. by the Cornell Daily Sun, who is currently a columnist for The New York Times.

To clarify our relationship, Oliver was our best friend, having shared an apartment with us for several years while we were students at Cornell University. His parents separated during that time, and Tonya’s parents lived temporarily abroad in Scotland, so my parents extended family gatherings to include both of them. Of course, Tonya would later officially become a member of the family when she and I got married (see “TidBITS Wedding”, May 20, 1991). At the ceremony, we enjoyed pranking Oliver, who was our best man, by making him fight with a series of boxes that nested Russian dolls to reach our wedding rings. Unofficially, however, Oliver has been a family for a long time, and it continues to this day. We babysit for his toddler son in 2001 when he and his wife Amelia went to the hospital for the birth of their daughter, and we took care of both children a bit when Amelia had a stroke in 2009. We tell stories for the rest of our lives in the winter of 2015 when we drove to Ottawa with Oliver and the three of us did the Winterlude skate-ski-run triathlon in temperatures of -15 degrees Fahrenheit, or as the hardy Canadians without worry informed us, -26 Celsius.

So it was difficult for us to come to terms with the likely fatal cancer diagnosis in the pancreas that Oliver was handed over in August 2018. Since then, we have seen him suffer from terrible chemotherapy, where the goal was to poison as many cancer cells as possible without actually kill him. Then there was radiation, and finally, in June 2019, he had the benign name “Whipple procedure”, where a surgeon took out some of his internal organs and put most of them in a different order. After that, he was nominally cancer-free for the rest of 2019. But then some blood tests marker numbers were too high, and when he went in for image processing in March 2020, several tumors appeared. He chose to avoid further chemotherapy and has had his life to the extent possible during the pandemic, even though he knew he only had months to live.

During that time, Oliver focused on flying (he had a private airline license) until he had to start taking morphine for pain. He and I went on many long weekend trips, and he, Tonya, and I spent a few afternoons just hanging out on our porch talking about nothing and everything we had done in college. After he could no longer fly, he plunged into other hobbies, assembling an Internet-of-Things clip of devices to dissuade a woodchuck from tunneling under his porch and undermining his patio. Throughout, he was as factual and optimistic about his limited time as one could imagine, and I remain in awe of his courage. He claimed that good character had nothing to do with it – he only had to do with the life that lay before him.

One of Oliver’s special joys was exploring unexpected ways to make things more efficient and sharing his methods with others. Whether it meant experimenting as a young adult to see how quickly he could pack up and get to the airport or the more methodical examination of an adult male to find the best way to archive papers (a Zoho database combined with numbered file folders), we were often the recipients of his counsel. But even when he evangelized raw oatmeal for breakfast, Getting Things Done as a productivity system and bodyweight exercises to stay strong, Oliver never pushed his findings in a knowledgeable way. He loved discussing them, though, and he usually understood what we might (or might not) be interested in hearing. He was also receptive to our performances. For example, when CrashPlan offered peer-to-peer backups, he happily became my CrashPlan buddy, and he hosted my backups outside the home while I returned the favor. Oliver tackled the cancer diagnosis with research on the odds that one or the other would keep him alive, and he often discussed the reasoning with us. If we had died next to him from the same disease, he would undoubtedly have shared action advice to navigate the tough path.

I realize that few who read this knew Oliver, or at least knew him as well as we did. But there is nothing to do with it now, except to publish this article and regret that there will be no more stories to share. Goodbye, my friend.

Oliver Habicht and Adam Engst, photo by Tonya Engst
Oliver Habicht (left) and Adam Engst (right); photo by Tonya Engst

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