DeathHacks

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Tech tips for people who are going to die (someday)

My dad died in 2011. He was an old school techie from back in the mainframe days: a maker type with a basement full of tools, an office full of new and old computers, and a house full of complex systems that only he fully understood. The house, his whole life really, was designed to run with a minimum of human interaction. He was lifehacked up the wazoo.

I’ve been reverse-engineering some of these inscrutable systems over the past few years, and hacking away at some other ones. It can be hard to talk about death and loss, but it’s easy to talk about problem-solving.

I’m the executrix which sounds risqué but just means I’m a female person who has been named in a will to serve as the estate’s representative. The term is ridiculous, I am stuck with it. I’ve enjoyed this job, I like to tinker and fix things, just like he did.

For just this one time, please be normal

My dad had a will. Even if you’re transhumanist or think you’ll live forever, it’s a good idea to have a plan for the world without you. Basic stuff: a will; durable power of attorney; healthcare proxy; and a way for your loved ones to access (or not) your things, both material and digital.

If we do not discuss it, are we not doomed to repeat the mistakes of Western death culture of the last 75 years? — Caitlin Doughty

In short: you should get your shit together. Have these conversations before you need to. Sure it’s awkward, but so is the rest of life.

WC Fields may have had hundreds of unidentified bank accounts. What happens to your stuff in the cloud?

Self-maintaining house dystopia

My dad’s house worked for my dad. Mostly. Ray Bradbury wrote about a future-world house that had a life after its occupants’ deaths. You might have read it.

The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants…. But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly.
There is technology to prevent your premature burial

Bradbury’s personal house was demolished intentionally in some sort of final irony. My dad’s retirement home was not quite so high tech but it was designed to provide a certain level of creature comforts with minimal inputs from him. Set it and forget it. An X-10 system turned most of the lights on and off on a schedule. Some of this was pretty straightforward “Turn on the porch lights after dark.” and some was a bit more esoteric “Turn off the office lights at 10 pm so that I’ll know it’s time for bed.” He knew the ruleset. I did not. I’d be working on an article or reading a book and suddenly be plunged into total darkness. I’d poke at some wall switches that would sometimes turn the lights back on.

The system was controlled by a laptop. The laptop died. I removed the hard drive to get at the config files. This project went on a lengthy To Do list and never rose to the top. The lights kept turning on and off. Over time their schedules got out of sync. The driveway lights would stay on for days. The porch lights would never come on, or turn on at 6:15 pm and then off at 6:27. Sometimes they’d just blink on and off and we’d be all “Did you see that?” My sister and I kept lists, tried to discern patterns. I pulled the switches off the walls, only to find that they were just stuck on with tape, with no actual wires underneath. Somewhere in some wall there was a transmitter sending out signals that only the lights could hear.

The x-10 directed certain power outlets in the house including the one powering the driveway light. It also controlled a few humidifiers and dehumidifiers as well as the central vacuuming system in the basement wood shop. I don’t know why you’d need a vacuum on an x-10 system. I woke once in the middle of the night feeling like the house was a spaceship mid-liftoff. It was only the whoomp and the screeching of the all-basement shop vac, come to life and sucking up non-existent dust. I went down in my pajamas to turn it off.

Meeting your makers

My dad had a fixit guy who, like all the other guys in his life, I knew by a last name that I had assumed was his first name. Part employee and part friend, Webster would take my dad’s verbal schematics and turn them into plumbing and electrical structures. I’d run into Webster in town and offhandedly mention that there was a weird fuzz growing in the toilets. He’d explain that they had warm water running in them so that water wouldn’t condense on the outside of the tank during the summertime. This is a thing that old house owners know, apparently.

What else didn’t I know to ask about?

Outside this window the generator powercycles for ten minutes every other Thursday.

Webster had installed the hardware for the lighting system but didn’t really understand how it worked. “Your dad really liked things complicated!” he’d say and laugh. He’d say my dad wouldn’t care if his car was in pieces on the garage floor 75% of the time as long as every time he drove it, it ran like a top. It was from my dad that I first heard a smoothly-operating machine called “sexy” (which didn’t always translate) and learned to appreciate the beauty of well-designed systems.

A few months into this slow-motion hackathon, we were celebrating my birthday. Friends put spitting smokey sparklers on cupcakes, trying to be festive. A disembodied voice from the ceiling started booming “FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!” which, as it happens, is a line from the Bradbury story. As we extinguished the sparklers and I scrambled to figure out how to stop the yelling, the phone started ringing. A man’s voice at the other end asked me for a password. This is how I learned that the house had an alarm system.

The alarm company was local. They’d known my dad, and they patiently stepped me through a series of password hints until I figured it out. The alarm got shut off; we didn’t have to explain it all to the fire department.

We finally called some friends of Webster’s, Killer and Moose, real names unknown, to track down the undead transponder in the wall. They used some high tech electricity-finding tool that I immediately wanted to own. The transponder was replaced with a switch to turn the lights on and off by hand. Inelegant, but it always worked. I had to tell myself when it was time for bed.

Social engineering & future-proofing

There’s a lot of grunt work that needs to be done after a death. Magazine subscriptions need to be stopped. Home services like lawn care need to be curtailed or amended. Maintenance schedules need to be deduced from calendar entries or handwritten notes. A lot of this is just simple phone calls or emails. Some of it is not.

The cable company, when called, wouldn’t let me downgrade my dad’s service without receiving a faxed copy of the death certificate and a letter outlining my executrixship. They insisted on me changing the account into my name, pronto. I hung up. Their online chat service, however, would let “Tom” do anything he wanted as long as he had the account number and the eminently guessable-by-me password that was the same as the alarm system’s. This was a reproducible result. Using my dad’s Google document with the usernames and passwords of all of his major accounts, I got a lot of things accomplished without having to speak to or see a real person.

Your moral compass might vary, mine was totally okay playing zombie games with the cable company. And I knew my father would have appreciated my finding new zero-human-interaction ways of getting things done, especially his things. That’s good hacking.

Sex, drugs, and terms of service

You should know that for unattended deaths the cops will show up and remove any prescription drugs stronger than Advil and they will not return them. If you are a newly-bereaved family member looking for something in the medicine cabinet to take the edge off, you’ll be out of luck.

Social network accounts, domain name registrations, email accounts… are “yours” by license only. When you die, the contract is over and the business that administers the account controls what happens to it. —Nolo

I took over my dad’s Apple ID because I wanted his apps. There may have been something about not doing this in Apple’s Terms of Service but I didn’t read them, and neither did you. I still use his iPad. It has all the bookmarks that he’d been using for over a decade. I was somewhat curious about the last websites that he’d visited.

I will tell you truthfully that I did not look into the bookmarks folder labeled whatever innocuous label 71 year old men put on their dirty pictures once I discerned what it was (future executrixies: mine is labeled taxes). My personal feeling is that it’s impossible to be embarrassed when you’re dead, but if you don’t share this view, there are technological solutions to your social concerns. Find them before you need them.

Terminal commands: never trust the internet

We did the usual thing and had a page at the funeral home’s website where people could sign a guestbook. One of my dad’s old colleagues from Data General was the first to alert us that someone was scraping emails from the guestbook and sending phishing emails. Really? We notified the funeral home and suggested that they rejigger their condolences pages which they did.

My sister has much better spelling and punctuation, doesn’t have a Yahoo email address and would never god bless anyone.

We encouraged people to upload photos and stories to a website specifically designed for digital memorials. The site promised the content would stay up forever. I even got a welcome email from their support team saying so.

I am part of the team at 1000memories and wanted to write and thank you for creating a page for your father Tom, it will always be available for you here: http://1000memories.com/tom-west

Their blog post “What is forever?” is now only accessible via the Internet Archive (as is his original obit). The photos are still there on the server but the old URLs are broken. I didn’t think they really meant it, I know the weasel word drill pretty well, but it was just another “What the fuck, internet?” moment in this lengthy process. I talked to an engineer at the now-acquired company who walked me through downloading a zip file of the site’s content that they prepared for me and now I just host it myself. Probably should have done that to begin with, trusted my own skills.

My dad’s Twitter account was hacked (darn those simple passwords) and we got messages from beyond the grave. His photos on Flickr, hundreds of scanned pictures and slides covering nearly all of his life—pictures of me and my sister, pictures of a Japanese computer show from 1980, pictures of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory—went away when we stopped paying for the account (a thing on the nearly-endless To Do list) and then came back when Flickr changed their pricing scheme again to make the account free. With a terabyte of free space “forever” I think we’ll just leave them there. Yahoo’s terms of service indicate that there are no rights of survivorship to their accounts. Technically enforceable, realistically ignored.

Facebook, which my dad never used, actually has a process for changing deceased users’ pages into memorial pages and I wonder if other sites and services will ever follow suit?

For three days after death hair and fingernails continue to grow but phone calls taper off. —Johnny Carson

The phone still occasionally rings at the house. There’s an outgoing message telling people to call my sister. People still leave messages: warranty people; scam-selling people; raffle ticket people. I only answer it if I am in the mood for an argument.

The digital legacy of most people ends at or near their death. Anything you add to the mix post-mortem can, thanks to Google’s recency algorithm, become a highly-findable relevant-seeming bit of information. I don’t talk smack about my dad on my blog or elsewhere, but I will show up on the comments sections of other blogs that do. Despite the appeal of tell-all essay writing, I keep most of his secrets to myself.

I work doing a lot of things nowadays, mostly in technology. One of my workplaces is moving to an Agile software development process where working software is prioritized over comprehensive documentation. It’s a lot more fun to build and refine complicated systems than to outline and explain to other people how they work, I get that. But if anyone but you, anyone you care about, is going to be using your systems ever, a certain amount of documentation can be a great gift to those who manage your afterlife life.

RIP Tom West 1939–2011 Systems guy. Dad.