May 21, 2024

RIP Bill Zeller

All of us here at CITP were saddened by the death of Bill Zeller, our respected and much-loved colleague. Bill was a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science here at Princeton, who died last night due to injuries sustained in a suicide attempt.

There has been a huge outpouring of sympathy for Bill, both at Princeton and across the Internet, which is entirely appropriate. But I’d like to focus here on the positive side of Bill’s life.

Bill has made at least two appearances here on Freedom to Tinker, first as the instigator of the Miraculin experiment (Miracle Fruit: Tinkering with our Taste Buds), then later for his research on web security (Popular Websites Vulnerable to Cross-Site Request Forgery Attacks).

Bill always had a new project brewing. His projects ranged from the quirky (the cult favorite Cats in Christmas Trees site) to an early blogging tool (Zempt, which was incorporated into Movable Type) to many useful software development tools (such as jLambda). Tens of millions of people have read or used something that Bill created.

Bill’s sense of humor was much appreciated by his friends. He would sometimes go to considerable lengths for the sake of a joke. Once, for the sake of an office joke, he created a technology package including an online game, an RSS-based miniblogging tool, and a screen saver. Then, later, he shut it all down, as a birthday present for the friend who was the target of his (good-natured) joke.

We have many, many fond memories of Bill, more than we could possibly fit here.

Those of you who knew Bill are invited to add your own fond memories in the comments.


  1. I didn’t know Bill, but read his last note. All I can say based on that is that he was a courageous, honourable and thoughtful man.

    I am pleased that he shared this part of his life with everyone. I think he has done a major kindness for too many strangers to count.

    Congrats to those of you who knew him personally.

  2. …that I’m sorry your pain was unbearable?
    I never met you, never heard of you before this morning, but I know your pain.
    I somehow managed to survive the darkness – I don’t know how or why.
    I’m sorry that you did not.
    Rest in peace, Bill.
    Rest now.

  3. Never knew you but may you rest in peace now, you deserve it.

  4. Rest in peace Bill

    [A portion of this comment was removed for not being in the spirit of this post.]

  5. There are now several stories over here… both in the comments on photos and written out separately.

  6. The poker group had a problem: there were too many “Steve’s.” I’m pretty sure it was Bill who solved the issue by dubbing me “Steve prime.” Like most things Bill said, it had a clever twist of humor, delivered with an impish grin and a twinkle of the eye. I was new to the group and Bill made me feel welcome. He also played me in ping-pong. It was no contest: I got whipped. The last time the poker group met (it was at Bill’s apartment), I arrived late. I sat down next to Bill, said “hi,” and promptly spilled my beer on his carpet. He looked at me, smiled the Bill-smile, and delivered the inevitable, nonchalant “go ahead, ruin the place.” He chuckled, and then offered me chocolate-chip cookies. He was a great guy. I wish he was still here.

  7. Bill knew how to welcome you. When I arrived in Princeton it was his poker games that really made me feel at home. He is famous for cooking for friends and always had the best snacks. He had a way of kidding around with you that instantly made you feel like part of the gang. In recent days I have heard for the first time about the legendary parties he threw at Trinity, but I’d like to describe a recent instance of extraordinary hospitality. Bill was having us over for poker, and he had purchased a high-definition Yule Log DVD to play for us on his state-of-the-art AV system. What you have to understand is that Bill agonized over the perfect configuration of this AV system for months, going so far as to purchase (on a deal of course) some sort of fancy remote that would automatically switch every component when you wanted to go from, say, watching TV to listening to the stereo. He was extremely proud of this system, forcing people to test it out the first time they visited. This particular evening, I walked in, complimented him on the yule log, and asked if we should play some music too. He sighed. “I think I can make that work.” Evidently his master system was not configured for this request. He then proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes behind the system completely disassembling it so that we could experience both the yule log and listen to music. I could tell that it was a deep sacrifice.

    Later that evening, after swearing that I could not possibly eat any more pretzels, he handed me a bag of buffalo chicken flavored pretzel bites. He knew of my affinity for the buffalo flavor in all products. How could I resist?

    He was a true friend.

    • That same night he insisted that we drink his scotch. Later on after I’d lost all my chips and didn’t want to buy back in for another $5 (my dad’s a gambling addict) he was like “Each sip of that scotch is worth more than the buy-in.”

      It turns out he was right. He was just that generous.