Wikinews mourns loss of volunteer John Shutt

This article mentions the Wikimedia Foundation, one of its projects, or people related to it. Wikinews is a project of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

On Friday, Wikinews learned Dr John Nathan Shutt, a long-time contributor to both Wikinews and Wikibooks, died on Wednesday. Editing under the name Pi zero, he was at the time the top contributor to Wikinews by edit count, and came third on English Wikibooks. Dr Shutt was 56 years old.

Dr Shutt’s elder sister, Ms Barbara Shutt, informed Wikinews about his death via email on early Friday. His mother Elsie Shutt had called 9-1-1 emergency services after he had trouble breathing. By the time the ambulance came, Dr Shutt was unconscious. Ms Barbara Shutt also added the doctors operated on him for two hours, but at the end, Dr Shutt died either by blood clots or by a series of heart attacks.

Dr Shutt was the most active editor and administrator on this project and had been contributing as Pi zero since September 2008. He was promoted to administrator in July 2010 and became a reviewer in August 2010. Since then, he has peer-reviewed then published over a thousand news articles on-wiki, the most recent being just a day before his death. He made over 160 thousand edits and over 120 thousand log entries on English Wikinews.

He also held reviewer and administrator privileges on English Wikibooks, having contributed to several wikibooks including Conlang, World Religions, Solar System and The Elements; and created Stacks, a mechanism for sorting the project’s content.

Dr Shutt would occasionally write blogs on his blogger called “Structural insight”. Dr Shutt was interested in constructed languages (conlangs). He was an avid reader, and enjoyed J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings novels.

In a discussion about Tolkien’s works last year, Dr Shutt said, “I read The Hobbit when I was, I think, a teenager. I read it again a few months ago; not sure if I ever read it between those times. It’s a wonderfully written story — by a linguist and, in fact, a conlanger. I’ve got the Lord of the Rings (the books, I mean), which I’ve read at least a couple of times over the years. And the Silmarillion, which covers the earliest part of Tolkien’s legendarium. Christopher Tolkien, his son who was close to his fantasy writing, is his literary executor and has spent the past half century of his life editing and publishing various of his father’s papers. I actually got for christmas… a year ago, I think, The Fall of Gondolin, which Christopher says will be the last of his father’s books that he publishes.”

Dr Shutt was awarded a PhD in Computer Science in 2011 from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Massachusetts. His research interests included Abstraction theory; the Kernel programming language, a Lisp-based language which he created and was his dissertation topic; Recursive Adaptive Grammars, the core of his master’s thesis as well as Self-Modifying Finite Automata which he developed with Roy Rubinstein. He had received his master’s degree in 1993, five years after finishing his bachelor’s degree, both from WPI. Dr John Shutt was also interested in adaptive grammar as well as category theory. He often programmed in Lisp, enjoyed xkcd comics and used Emacs as his choice of text editor.

He had spent one year at the Brown University for his post-graduate academics. Recalling the experience, Dr. Shutt said, “I spent one year at Brown, but it didn’t work. And was a traumatic experience for me; it took me a couple of years to recover enough to make a second try at graduate school.” Dr Shutt shared an office with Paul Howard in the 1988/89 academic year at Brown University. In July 2019, Dr Shutt said, “It saddens me that I forgot to wish Paul Howard a happy birthday this year, and he appears to have forgotten to wish me one either. First time we’ve failed to exchange birthday wishes, even if belatedly, since we were assigned to share an office in the 1988/89 academic year at Brown”.

Andres Navarro and Oto Havle had created an implementation of Kernel programming language, called kernel, which was mentioned in a presentation at BSDCan by Michael MacInnis. Recalling that incident in November, Dr Shutt said, “Two or three years ago, this guy Michael MacInnis emailed me. He was getting ready to give a talk at BSDCan (an annual BSD conference in Canada) about a new UNIX shell he was ready to release, called Oh; and he wanted to know if it was okay if he mentioned my name in regard to fexprs, ’cause my dissertation had come out as he was putting the design together and Kernel-style fexprs fit wonderfully well with his concept so he used them. I assured him I was fine with having my name mentioned. Last night I was watching the video he provides of his talk, which iirc he felt went very well. I’ve been meaning to learn in more detail how the shell works; it was kind of fascinating to me how it very easily does away with most of Lisp’s parentheses despite being fundamentally Lisp. (Cons cells and fexprs. Profoundly Lisp.)”.

Dr Shutt lived with Asperger’s syndrome. In a discussion with one of the Wikimedia volunteers, he said, “As often happens with aspies, I was a hyperlexic kid, some of which has lingered.”

Dr Shutt lived in Massachusetts, US, and is survived by his mother Elsie Shutt, his sister and niece Barbara and Hannah Shutt, his cat Pickles and his brother David Shutt. Dr Shutt would have turned 57 next Friday.

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