My New Side Hustle: Death 2.0

The other day I received this email message from my friend Ken Russell:

Hi Theo,
Happy New Year! How are you doing? I just remembered seeing that you weren’t well during the last WebGL meetup and wanted to check in. Hope you are feeling better now. What have you been up to lately?
WebGL 2.0 is shipping in Chrome and Firefox at the end of this month. It’s a long-overdue but significant upgrade, and should improve the web’s graphical capabilities quite a bit. I look forward to seeing what you’ll do with it!

Ken is one of the few people who knows me both online and in the meat-world.

So it’s appropriate that I use a reply to his message to make a little online/meat-world announcement.

Hi Ken

Thank you for your kind enquiry.

Delightfully, your question segues nicely into my latest side hustle. This lively new project kicks off with a new repository at with the code name ‘Death 2.0’. Other naming possibilities included ‘dying’, ‘aging well’ and ‘dying well’, but Death 2.0 resonates well with that old-timey concept of Web 2.0 .

A Web 2.0 website may allow users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to the first generation of Web 1.0-era websites where people were limited to the passive viewing of content.

Similarly, the task of the Death 2.0 project is to disrupt the traditional end of life process — to leave Death 1.0 in the dust to dust. As with any disruption project, it’s best to eschew the peeps that need disrupting.

  • Uber never asked taxi-companies if they wanted to be disrupted
  • AirBnB did not invite hotel-keepers into their hegemony

So this effort is not about chatting to clerics and philosophers. Nor is it even about sending messages to the good peeps in hospices or the frantic peeps just about to crash into that brick wall. No, this is about building a methodology on time-honored web dev practices.

The first is, of course, ‘release early, release often’.

Certainly you are not ready to die. So why should your app be ready already? But there’s nothing stopping you from building up the feature set prior to the event and reducing the risk of a death that will be of no use. And there’s much to be gained by listening to your peeps and creating a tight feedback loop and thus leading a well-earned death — and to the next practice.

Another web dev practice eminently suited to Death 2.0 is ‘Fail Fast, Fail Often’. Failing to complete on a potential death event can be an excellent indicator that you have survived. And may even help you or show you how to be a life-long learner. In other words, the more failures at potential death events that you have, the longer you live. A win-win situation if you think about it.

And, perhaps, the most salient and relevant web dev paradigm is the ‘MVP’ or minimum viable product

Here it’s well worth reading the Wikipedia Description for a MVP:

A minimum viable product has just those core features sufficient to deploy the product, and no more. Developers typically deploy the product to a subset of possible customers — such as early adopters thought to be more forgiving, more likely to give feedback, and able to grasp a product vision from an early prototype or marketing information.

This strategy targets avoiding building products that customers do not want and seeks to maximize information about the customer per dollar spent.

“The minimum viable product is that version of a new product a team uses to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” The definition’s use of the words maximum and minimum means it is decidedly not formulaic. It requires judgment to figure out, for any given context, what MVP makes sense.

Now, after reading these words, can’t you see how awesome these requirements are?

And how applicable they could be to the negative, untimely aspects of dying?

Actually, I can’t either. But never mind.

Here’s the thing. It turns out that I have a highly current, nearly universal requirement for an MVP but there’s no app that fits the bill. In turn this is a sure sign that there’s a huge opportunity or need for disruption.

Anyway here’s my opportunistic need:

The other day I was not able to contact my UCSF Primary Care doctor, so I googled the phrase ‘black, tarry stool’.

The results — in essence — said: ‘Call 911’. So I did. I ended up spending several days in the hands of the UCSF Medical Center. It was trippy. One day, I ended up swallowing a long black plastic covered snake. And a day later I was bitten up the butt by a similar snake.

Anyway, that second snake — while perusing that place where the sun don’t shine — happened to come upon a small bump. So it bit off a chunk of that bump and sent it to the place where little bumps go.

Wake-up call: The biopsy report from the lab said the little bump is a ‘well-differentiated adenocarcinoma’.

Uh Oh, Spaghetti Os

It turns out the treatment of stage I colon cancer usually includes the resection and anastomosis by laparoscopic sigmoid colectomy.

Various links suggest discharge after the procedure is within 3–4 days.

The 5-year relative survival rate for people with stage I colon cancer is about 92%.

Colectomy or colostomy scheduled for Friday the 13th.

So it’s no big deal. But neither is it an ignorable deal.

I’ve faced worse or more difficult challenges.

<< multiple bad things to be added here >>

Anyway, a couple of weeks before my jolly experience, my first cousin suffered a burst hepatic artery. This has a survival rate south of ten percent unless you are in hospital. My cousin was already in hospital. Yay! And has survived and was discharged.

During all of this I was the primary point of contact and did things such as staying in the hospital until 3am until the surgery was over, emailing the family and explaining things to caregivers. And my immediate family changed its Christmas plans so we would all be in San Francisco to be at my cousin’s side.

And then my neighbor across the hall had his newspapers pile up for three days. A number of hours after my first enquiry, we ascertained that he was taken to hospital after suffering a stroke and calling 911.

As I write this, my neighbor from down the hall stopped by to say he was OK. Last night he stopped by at around 11pm because he had a fever of 101 and was wondering about calling 911 — which he did the next day.

So the grim reaper certainly has been poking around my ‘hood. And his presence makes has made me exquisitely aware of death.

But not just any death, it’s about death in the modern era.

I am currently in the midst of drafting a paper titled ‘The Status of Illness in the Age of Social Networks?’ This work is modeled on the seminal treatise ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ written by Walter Benjamin in 1935.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of scary stuff out there about dying.

Particularly as death relates to isolation. I live alone, my cousin lives alone, my neighbors live alone. Is this going to be the death of us? There’s certainly a lot of affirmative evidence.

How Social Isolation Is Killing Us

For me, the sadness of his death was surpassed only by the sadness of his solitude. I wondered whether his isolation was a driving force of his premature death, not just an unhappy circumstance.

Social isolation increases risk of early death, study finds

“Whether or not loneliness predicts mortality in the UK, it most certainly does predict lower well-being, increased depressive symptomatology, and decreased cognitive functioning in older adults in the UK as well as in the U.S. This makes it important to address in the UK whether or not it predicts mortality.”

<< more bad things to be added here>>

And yet there may be another aspect to consider. This living in isolation phenomenon may be a lifestyle choice:

As I walk the hall on the way to the elevator:

The pile of newspapers was evidence that something had happened to Chuck. Now that he’s back, I can tell that he’s OK because I can hear his TV as I unlock my front door.

When I walk past Dennis’ apartment and hear arias and Broadway tunes, I know he’s OK.

And when I see Mary knocking on the door of the gent with white hair, I know they will be watching a movie together.

A bag of food delivered by Munchery tells me that Werner will be home late from work — again.

Day after day after day.

And so our life ends not with a bang — nor even with a whimper — but the sound of a TV.

OK, it’s not always just TV, but it is by an inexorable (inexhorrible?) supply of content delivered to our easy chairs.

  • Content designed to make us happy, but wanting still more
  • Content designed to keep us awake but not making us budge

If — as Karl Marx said — ‘religion … is the opiate of the masses’ then modern media is the likely OxyContin or Fentanyl of the peeps in my hood.

Unlike the prescription meds, you can get the media stuff for free and while withdrawal can be hugely painful it shouldn’t actually hurt. And when you think about it, it’s kind of sweet and neat and painless.

So if Web 1.0 was limited to the passive viewing of content then Death 1.0 is: Death by TV. And Death 1.0 is already here. Many wrinklies are already living in it — and maybe even by choice.

Death by TV is:

  • Pretty much classless. Very rich peeps are doing it and so are peeps with just social security
  • Happens both in red and blue counties
  • For most people it starts some time after their active ‘working’ career has been terminated. But the disabled or long term unemployed can get an early start if needed.
  • There’s sports for the ‘gents’ and entertainment for the ‘ladies’
  • And it’s in all languages
  • And unlike the old-timey death, it’s highly non-judgmental. Felons can do it. And so can nuns

But then is Death 1.0 — what you really want?

Or could there be a Death 2.0? The interactive and collaborative upgrade.

As an academic, you might ask: “is the task before us is to extend into the relatively painless, directionless, timeless and ultimately meaningless current form of death the extra virtues of authenticity, the gathering of wisdom and not just a receiving of content but also the giving or creation of fresh content? Death 2.0 should have gravitas.”

Anyway, this thought experiment has many questions still to be answered. I already have several further posts in mind.

Or maybe, as a kid on the street, you ask: “Oh, so you are dying! watch ya got? Is there an app for that?” Death 2.0 could be better than Pokemon Go!.

Could Death 2.0 actually be a program? And will I be an early programmer — and user?

Death 1.0 is dead. Long live death 2.0!

In closing, Ken, I too am looking forward to WebGL 2.0 ( no relation to Web 2.0 ;-) and thank you deeply for your ongoing online efforts. I am particularly am fond of ‘listening’ in on the email messages of very smart people discussing very difficult technical topics in a highly civil manner.

I look forward to using WebGL 2.0 to manipulate the CT scans of my abdomen in faster and more visually quantifiable ways — all free and open source of course.

thank you,


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