I was in a Duke University classroom after hours, somewhere around 2005. Seth Vidal had grabbed a whiteboard and was enthusiastically explaining to me and a few others just how XMPP worked. I remember that impromptu little lecture well. Simple as it was, it illuminated computers for me in a way that my computer science classes often didn't.
Seth wasn't a professor or a student: he was a sysadmin in the physics department. To me, he was the person who would always show up and always lend a hand; it was only later that I came to understand that it wasn't just my little Linux User Group events he was showing up for, or a few undergraduates that he was lending a hand to.
Ten years ago today, Seth was killed by a hit-and-run driver while cycling home. I still think about him often.
But I was just a naive undergraduate, and Seth's mere existence was revolutionary to me; he showed me that there was an enormous range of possible lives hiding behind the facade of everyday American society.
He was one of the first vegetarians I had met.
He was one of the first people I had met who spoke frankly about climate change and the need for action.
He was one of the first people to show me that, yes, you could write software without a computer science degree or a deep mathematical background: he had studied political science at a small liberal-arts school and yet seemed to know more than anyone else around me about how computers fit together.
Most importantly to me, though, he was one of the first people I had met who had deliberately eschewed car and plane travel; he was out cycling that night because he was acting on his beliefs.
I graduated from Duke in 2006 and encountered Seth online sporadically after that; by 2013, after an embarrassing amount of of plane travel around the world, learning about the alternatives to American life, I had come to the conclusion myself that cars were harmful in many ways. Having moved back to Baltimore in 2011, I had chosen the most walkable neighborhood I could find, and tried to cycle and take public transit wherever I could.
Being a cyclist in America is not easy. Often, you feel like you're something less than a person. Even Seth's own ghost bike was ordered removed by the Durham city government.
When Seth was killed, it made me feel like every ride I took, each time I walked or biked somewhere, I was doing it in his memory. I came to the conclusion that the best thing I could do to protect others from the same fate was to put myself out there, too. That committment still drives me not only to ride, but to ride as safely as I can.
In my university years, I hardly knew anything about building software, and my beliefs about the fundamental rightness and decency of free and open source software were based more in naivety than experience. Had we ever worked together, I am certain that I would have found much to disagree with. And I don't want to ever ask myself a question like "What would Seth do?," because, in truth, I didn't know him all that well. But what I did learn from him was that nothing is as settled as it appears, it's okay to have beliefs that diverge from the norm, that beliefs are useless without action, and that the easiest way to do something is to go and do it.
When Seth passed, I remember that a friend commented it had affected him more than the passing of Aaron Swartz. That, I suppose, is the power of personal connection. When I consider the many experiences in my life that led me to live in Tokyo, I know that the seeds Seth and his bicycle planted are among them. I am older now than Seth was in 2013; I wonder if I have been able to have as much of an impact on others as he did in his short life.
At my last job, someone I had been looking forward to teaming up with to tackle some urgent problems instead offered to be my mentor, which I found unproductive. Thinking about it some more, I realized that the people I would be proud to call mentors over the years were the people who would never presume to call themselves such, who were too interested in solving problems to worry about who was more senior than who. People like Seth, who were happy just to show up and talk about how XMPP connects us together. I hope I can do the same.