I’ve released as CC0 all the pictures I’ve created and shared on Wikimedia Commons. I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while; Aaron’s death and — more specifically — Nina Paley’s release of Sita Sings the Blues as CC0 have pushed me into doing it. I’ve encountered the same issues she has — people ask me for permission due to legal concerns when I don’t think they need to. In particular, my chemical structure of DNA diagram has been a popular item for textbooks.
Theo Sanderson has made a text editor that checks if a body of text complies with using only the 1,000 most common English words. This was inspired by XKCD’s “Up-Goer Five” — a description of the Saturn V rocket created according to this rule. It reads like a Simple Wikipedia article (but even more extreme).
Anyway, I’ve seen a couple friends describe their job using this constraint, so I figured I’d try my hand at it. It’s surprisingly intelligible, and I think I like the kenning of “body-book” to describe a genome.
Children often have bodies like their parents. One reason this is true is because we each have parts that tell our bodies how to grow. We get these parts from our parents, and they can be read like a book. I study these body-books.
Some body-books have words that cause people to grow in the same way. But sometimes people are different — even if their body-books have the same words — and so I also study what things make bodies different even if their body-books are the same.
We are able to study our body-books more than ever, because we can now read them very easily.
Another important thing about body-books: we think it will be possible to learn a lot from someone’s body-book, even if we aren’t able to do it now. Also, with computers it’s very easy to share body-books — and it’s very hard to hide them after they’re shared. This means if people give their body-books so others can study them, they might share things they didn’t know about and didn’t mean to share.
So another part of my job is making sure people learn this might happen. We want to share body-books with everyone so that everyone can study them, but only people who know the fears should share their body-books.
The brother of my friend Noah Swartz committed suicide last Friday. I didn’t know Noah’s brother Aaron, so these are the terms I relate to it in. The Swartz family is close to many of my friends: Mako and Mika live in his Aaron’s former apartment/offices, and I’ve met both of Noah’s brothers through them. Noah’s a quiet guy, but a geek in his own right — crazy good at strategy games and an occasional host for college radio.
Noah’s brother was Aaron Swartz. Aaron’s in the news a lot right now, and with good reason. He was brilliant and he was unfairly treated. The Swartz family and Aaron’s partner aren’t going to have a lot of privacy these days, but I’m not sure they want it. They’re angry and they want you to know that Aaron’s death wasn’t just about depression:
“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 U.S. 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.”
It is difficult to explain what Aaron was actually prosecuted for, what he was facing, and why it was horribly wrong. The best summary I’ve heard so far was aired this morning on WBUR: http://www.wbur.org/2013/01/15/swartz-attorney-ortiz
It’s hard to know where to go from here. Here are some ideas.
Ask MIT for an apology. It’s too little and too late, but those who loved Aaron would like to see MIT acknowledge that its involvement in his prosecution was wrong.
Dedicate yourself to publishing Open Access. If you are in academia, you know what this is about. Aaron was convinced that knowledge is power, and our publications are purportedly our efforts to share knowledge. You may also wish to share copies of your pdfs on the web, and there is a Twitter movement advocating this (#pdftribute). I should note while this is common it is also technically illegal — an act of civil disobedience, albeit on a much smaller scale than Aaron’s alleged and unrealized liberation of JSTOR archives.
Give to Givewell. Aaron believed we have a moral obligation to help others in the most efficient manners possible. He personally worked for structural change — he was a genius and so he had a reasonable chance of accomplishing this — but he was also a strong believer in Givewell and doing the greatest good by contributing to the developing world. My husband Chris and I donate a significant fraction of our income each year to Givewell, and the Swartz family has asked that donations made in Aaron’s memory be made to that organization.
Finally, here are articles and links if you’d like to learn more about Aaron. I present these in chronological order.
- Aaron’s talk “How we stopped SOPA” (May 22 2012), which articulately explains what was so dangerous about SOPA and highlights one of the many ways Aaron fought to make our world a better place.
- Cory Doctorow’s “RIP Aaron Swartz” (Jan 12 2013), in which he remembers a brilliant young friend.
- Lawrence Lessig’s “Prosecutor as Bully” (Jan 12 2013), an angry summary of how wrong Aaron’s prosecution was.
- The Economist’s Babbage Blog “Remembering Aaron Swartz: Commons Man” (Jan 13 2013), a poignant memorial.
- The New Yorker’s Tim Wu “How the Legal System Failed Aaron Swartz–And Us” (Jan 14 2013), a criticism of the expansive nature of our current legal system, how disproportionate justice is subject to selective enforcement, and how genius is punished.
- WBUR’s David Boeri “Prosecution’s Case Against Swartz Draws Scrutiny” (Jan 15 2013), mentioned above, this best summary so far I’ve heard of Aaron’s legal case.