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Barry, 2001/05/12:15:22

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So I'm sitting here, drinking a beer called Liberty, mourning a dead friend, whom I loved.

Barry Ward Hill-Tout died yesterday in the early afternoon after a long fight against pancreatic cancer. He is survived by his parents and siblings, his wife Julie Hong-Hanh Thai, and his children Henry (6) and Kimberly (4). He died in the manner that he lived: quietly, tidily, without any fuss. He had a tidy mind, full of wry humor and kindness, yet with a keenly refined sense of justice. He believed in the value of human liberty.

I met Barry over 15 years ago, when I was working on my masters at Queen's. He was a junior professor in the department of mathematics. In those halcyon days before the Peikoff-everyone split, random groups of objectivists would sometimes collaborate with each other without fear of "sanctioning" the enemy within. A group in Belleville was putting on a taped course--I don't recall what--and Barry and another Kingston objectivist advertised for participants. I called the other fellow, whom I've since fallen out of contact with as he was on the P-side of the P/K divide, and I in the end left the movement for good.

But on that January weekend afternoon when he picked me up for the hour's drive to Belleville, Barry was in the car, welcoming, curious--a new kind of creature entirely in my experience: a card-carrying intellectual who was also an objectivist. He was the kindest, gentlest objectivist I've ever known, quiet and calm in contrast to my ebullience and enthusiasm, but we got on well from the very first.

Over the next few years we had dinner together once a month or so, and as a budding physicist I was curious as to how the other half lived. I used to ask him every once in a while, "So what on earth does a mathematician do?". His first answers ("Prove theorems") were fairly unenlightening. But as time progressed I began to see the shape of his field (topology, specifically singularity theory) and understand something of the intellectual enterprise he was engaged in.

Barry eventually moved to Ottawa to teach there (he used to describe himself as a "mathematics teacher" when asked what he did for a living) but realized that the job prospects for mathematicians in the then-current academic climate were slim-to-none.

At that time, under the brilliant editorship of Neil Reynolds, the Kingston Whig-Standard was arguably the best newspaper in Canada, hewing to Reynolds belief that newspapers are literature. At Reynold's behest Barry, a regular contributor to the letters page, joined the staff of the Whig as an editorial writer, and continued to work there after the paper was sold and lowest-common-denominated by its new owners, struggling to maintain some of the old editorial quality. Under Reynolds--a founding member of the failed Canadian Libertarian Party--Barry was free to write signed editorials that explicitly argued for free market solutions to all the worlds problems. Other editorial writers were free to make the opposite case, making the paper a lively forum for the living discourse of Canadian politics. Barry had fun with the position, too, in his intellectual fashion, once producing an editorial on the constancy of the speed of light.

With his encouragement, I wrote a little humor, a few opinion pieces and book reviews for the paper while a grad student. When I left Kingston to pursue my post-doctoral career he used to send me extensive cuttings from the paper. How others living beyond the environs of Kingston managed to get along without it, I can't imagine.

Our best times were the long evenings we used to spend together, drinking tea and talking over issues that ranged from philosophy to mathematics and physics to history. Barry was particularly well-versed in modern history, and never let his political views stray outside the bounds set by historical possibility. I recall in particular once proposing some deeply draconian measure to prevent some behavior that irritated me, and he responded promptly, "You mean like the Nazis did?" Unlike debate on the 'Net, raising the issue of the Nazis didn't ever end a debate between me and Barry, because he knew what he was talking about. The precise thing I was proposing (in a moment of pompous self-righteousness) really had been tried by the Nazis, and the interesting thing, which we spent some time discussing, was that it hadn't worked. No matter how draconian the measure, there are those who will still be free.

What Barry taught me that evening is that human liberty is real. There is an irreducible core to the human race that will not yield. That is a good lesson to learn, and as my own reading in history has broadened and deepened, again following him, I have seen it confirmed many times. And Barry was part of that core.

So here I sit, drinking a beer called Liberty, remembering my dead friend, whom I loved.
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