In praise of the obituary

Some newspapers treat obituaries as little more than a throwaway, which is a shame since they provide an opportunity to record the fascinating details of a person's life, and to highlight the remarkable breadth and depth of humanity. Few do this better than the New York Times, and yesterday was no exception:

Joybubbles, 58, Peter Pan of Phone Hackers, Dies

Published: August 20, 2007

Joybubbles (the legal name of the former Joe Engressia since 1991), a blind genius with perfect pitch who accidentally found he could make free phone calls by whistling tones and went on to play a pivotal role in the 1970s subculture of “phone phreaks,” died on Aug. 8 in Minneapolis.

He was 58, though he had chosen in 1988 to remain 5 forever, and had the toys and teddy bears to prove it. The cause of death has not been determined, said Steven Gibb, a friend and the executor of the Joybubbles estate.

Joybubbles, who was blind at birth, was a famous part of what began as a scattered, socially awkward group of precocious teens and post-teens fascinated with exploring the phone system. It could then be seen as the world’s biggest, most complex, most interesting computer, and foiling the phone system passed for high-tech high jinks in the ’70s.

“It was the only game in town if you wanted to play with a computer,” said Phil Lapsley, who is writing a book on the phone phreaks. Later, other blind whistlers appeared, but in 1957, Joybubbles may have been the first person to whistle his way into the heart of Ma Bell.

Phreaks were precursors of today’s computer hackers, and, like some of them, Joybubbles ran afoul of the law. Not a few phreaks were computer pioneers, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple.

Joybubbles felt that being abused at a school for the blind and being pushed by his mother to live up to his 172 I.Q. had robbed him of childhood. So he amassed piles of toys, Jack and Jill magazines and imaginary friends, and he took a name he said made people smile.

But he never lost his ardor for phones, and old phone phreaks and younger would-have-beens kept calling. Joybubbles loved the phone company, reported problems he had illegally discovered and even said he had planned his own arrest on fraud charges to get a phone job. And so he did, twice.

Well before the mid-1970s, when digitalization ended the tone-based system, Joybubbles had stopped stealing calls. But he was already a legend: he had phoned around the world, talking into one phone and listening to himself on another.

In an article in Esquire in 1971, the writer Ron Rosenbaum called Joybubbles the catalyst uniting disparate phreaks. Particularly after news accounts of his suspension from college in 1968 and conviction in 1971 for phone violations, he became a nerve center of the movement.

“Every night he sits like a sightless spider in his little apartment receiving messages from every tendril of its web,” Mr. Rosenbaum wrote.

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