Sunday, January 13, 2013

Observations 1.13

You may or may not have heard of Aaron Swartz. At the age of 14 he was an early developer of the RSS web feed technology and later he worked on the creation of Creative Commons, was one of the founders of Reddit, and in 2010 launched Demand Progress. If you want to know more about Swartz you can check Google News which now comes up with over 100,000 results. A good start is "Postscript: Aaron Swartz" from The New Yorker.

A brilliant coder, hacker, and activist he was studying at Harvard when he was charged with stealing 5 million articles from JSTOR, a searchable archive of academic journals, which he planned on publishing online. While illegal it was far from enough to warrant over a dozen felony counts or the threatened 30 years in prison and million dollar fine the federal lawyers were promising, somebody wrote that he was being persecuted not prosecuted. Friday Swartz, who also suffered from depression, hung himself in his New York apartment at the age of 26.

But this post isn't totally about Swartz's life, or hacking, or depression. Once again stories I care about seem to revolve around one another.

Quinn Norton is a journalist for among others Wired and The Guardian who I first started reading when she covered the occupy movement from one coast to the other, her "A Eulogy For Occupy" is a must read. If you read enough sooner or later you run into a writer who more often than not thinks the same way as you do. That doesn't mean you always agree with them but you do understand what they are trying to say at some deeper level and as I followed Occupy Quinn Norton was just that type of writer to me.

I didn't know until this morning that Norton and Swartz had at one time lived together in San Francisco. She wrote a touching farewell to him on her blog which she ended with W. H. Auden's "Funeral Blues."

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

update - I just saw that as a tribute to Swartz many researchers have begun to post their papers free using the twitter hashtag #pdftribute and somebody created a link scraper to collect PDFs and links with that tag. You can check it out here if you want.

I also saw that JSTOR had dropped the case saying it regretted being drawn into it in the first place. However the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, decided to go ahead with the high profile case anyway and the trial was scheduled to begin sometime this year. One has to seriously wonder about the whole affair given the, from my experience, limited value of academic articles. Why go after him like an accused terrorist or Wall Street banker? Well okay, why go after him like an accused terrorist?

1/14 update - From the official statement of Swartz's family:
"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles."

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