Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 2
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Wednesday, January 12, 2011
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University Grad Student, Computer Programmer, Takes His Own Life

William Zeller, a fifth year graduate student in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University, died Wednesday, January 5 as a result of injuries sustained in a suicide attempt. He was 27.

Mr. Zeller was found in his University apartment early on the morning of Sunday, January 2. Brain damage due to oxygen deprivation left him in a coma at University Medical Center at Princeton until he was removed from life support the evening of January 5. He left behind a 4,000-word suicide note, which he published on his personal website and e-mailed to friends Sunday morning. He was discovered in his apartment minutes later by first responders.

“I have the urge to declare my sanity and justify my actions,” the note begins, “but I assume I’ll never be able to convince anyone that this was the right decision. Maybe it’s true that anyone who does this is insane by definition, but I can at least explain my reasoning. I considered not writing any of this because of how personal it is, but I like tying up loose ends and don’t want people to wonder why I did this. Since I’ve never spoken to anyone about what happened to me, people would likely draw the wrong conclusions.” The note goes on to describe how repeated sexual abuse as a child haunted him for the rest of his life, hampering his ability to connect with others and causing him regular nightmares. “Most of my life has been spent feeling dead inside,” he writes, “waiting for my body to catch up.” After apparently contemplating suicide for more than a year, he began drafting the note last winter. In his words, “This has affected every aspect of my life. This darkness, which is the only way I can describe it, has followed me like a fog, but at times intensified and overwhelmed me.”

Shocked friends and colleagues, who never saw signs of Mr. Zeller’s distress, remembered him as a brilliant programmer, talented chef, and devoted Red Sox fan. At Princeton, he led computer security research at the Center for Information Technology Policy. In addition to his many high-profile projects, he created several smaller projects ranging from the practical to the humorous. At Trinity College, where he graduated with honors in 2006, he created myTunes, a free program that allows music purchased from iTunes to be downloaded to other computers. MyTunes was downloaded about three million times between 2003 and 2006. During his undergraduate years he also created Zempt, an enhancement for the Moveable Type blogging platform. He continued creating innovative software in graduate school. His most recent hit was Graph Your Inbox, an extension to the Chrome browser that allows GMail users to analyze patterns in their own email traffic. His efforts to improve the world around him were not limited to software. He served for more than two years as the computer science representative to Princeton’s Graduate Student Government, advocating the interests of his fellow graduate students in housing, campus transportation, and other issues. He also co-authored a paper called “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” that explained how governments can release public data in ways that will be useful to programmers. The paper has been influential both in academia and government.

The full text of Mr. Zeller’s note can be found on his personal website at documents.from.bz/note.txt.

The obituary released by Mather-Hodge Funeral Home may be found in the Obituaries.

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