Tag: Aaron Swartz

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

"I feel very strongly, that it is not enough to just live in the world as it is and just take what you are given, to follow the things that adults told you to do ... and that society tells you to do."
“I feel very strongly, that it is not enough to just live in the world as it is and just take what you are given …”

Two years ago today, internet activist Aaron Swartz took his own life. At the time, Swartz was in the midst of being prosecuted for downloading academic journal articles.

While 27 at the time of his suicide, Swartz is a reminder that it is not the number of days that we live that determines our ultimate value to the world and ourselves but rather what we do with the time we have. Never interested in making money, he was interested in something much more important, something larger, something he couldn't just walk away from.

Bringing to mind the words of William J. Reilly, who in How to Avoid Work, said “Altogether too much emphasis, I think, is being placed on what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do,” Swartz, in one interview, said:

I feel very strongly, that it is not enough to just live in the world as it is and just take what you are given, to follow the things that adults told you to do … and that society tells you to do. I think you should always be questioning. I take this very scientific attitude that everything you've learned is just provisional, that it's always open to recantation, refutation, or questioning. And I think the same applies to society. Once I realized that there were real serious problems that I could do something to address, I didn't see a way to forget that. I didn't see a way not to.

At his memorial service in 2013, a speaker read a section of David Foster Wallace's famous Kenyon College commencement address. The speech was so good it was put into a small book which I occasionally give to graduating students titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Elaborating on what it means to live a meaningful life, Wallace was quoted:

If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Featuring interviews with friends, family, and internet luminaries, The Internet's Own Boy, depicts the life of Swartz. More importantly, the film makes us question what it means to live a meaningful life, how we spend our time, what information should be free, as well as the removal of civil liberties that serve as the foundation of our free society.

This reminds me of another memorable quote from David Foster Wallace, which appears in Conversations with David Foster Wallace:

“That was his whole thing. “Are you normal?” “Are you normal?” I think one of the true ways I’ve gotten smarter is that I’ve realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I’m pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die.”

(Image source)

How can we have less crime with less punishment? When Brute Force Fails

Internet hacker and activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide on January 11th, 2013. He was 26 years old. Swartz will be remembered not only for his enormous intellect but also for being a great person.

I was going through his website and came across his review of Mark Kleiman's book on crime control strategies When Brute Force Fails.

Crime, aside from drug crimes (where his work persuasively argues that “the abuse of illicit drugs is a human tragedy but not a major threat to the social order”), is serious. (Presumably this only applies to classic violent crimes; it’s obvious this logic doesn’t work for violations of copyright law and civil disobedience.) Even where there’s a small amount of actual crime, it’s possible that’s just because people are wasting so much time preventing it. There’s a serious social cost to having to remember to lock our doors and carry our keys around all the time, let alone the money we waste on burglar alarms and car-tracking services and all the rest.

While I find the methodology he uses to show it wildly problematic1, I agree with his point that crime really sucks. Even if a burglar only causes $400 worth of damage, I’d pay far more than $400 to prevent a burglary — the loss of privacy, the sense of violation, the disruption of my normal order, the distraction of having to deal with police and repairmen and insurance agents, etc. all add up to make burglary a nightmare well above the direct economic damage it causes.

Such things are a frustration for white suburbanites, but for poor people stuck in the ghetto, they’re a nightmare. Crime is yet another disadvantage and a particularly noxious one at that. Even aside from all the other indignities suffered by the poor, just imagining life in a crime-ridden neighborhood is enough to make your skin crawl.

How can we have less crime with less punishment?

The first thing to notice is that low-crime is an equilibrium state: if nobody is committing any crimes, all anti-crime resources can be focused on anyone who decides to break the law, making it irrational for them to even try. But high-crime is also an equilibrium (assuming reasonable levels of punishment): if everyone is breaking the law, the police can’t possibly stop all of them, so it’s not so risky to keep on breaking the law.

To reduce both crime and punishment, you just need to tip the society from one equilibrium to the other. And, Kleiman argues, we can do that with a technique he calls “dynamic concentration.” Imagine there are three robbers (Alice, Bob, and Carol) and one policeman (Eve). Eve can only stop one robber at a crime, so if more than one person is committing a burglary at the same time, she decides to be fair and switch around who she arrests — sometimes she nabs Alice, sometimes Bob, sometimes Carol.

The problem is that the robbers know this and they know it means they only have a 1/3 chance of getting caught. A guaranteed arrest is bad news, but a 1/3 chance of getting arrested isn’t worth quitting over. So the robbers keep on robbing and the cop keeps failing to keep up with them.

But now imagine Eve adopts a new policy: dynamic concentration. Instead of randomly deciding who to go after, she goes after people in alphabetical order. So if Alice is committing a crime, Eve always goes after her first if she’s committing a crime — otherwise Bob, and then Carol. Now Alice knows that if she robs someone, she’s guaranteed to get caught (instead of just having a one-third chance), so she decides to sit this one out. You might think this would just lead Bob to step into the breach, but now that Alice is out, Eve can turn her focus to Bob instead. So Bob also decides to call it quits. That just leaves Carol, who Eve now gets to watch like a hawk, and so Carol also gives up the game. And there you have it: dynamic concentration stops all the crime without adding any more police.

Obviously things aren’t so clean in the real world, but I think this is the first game-theoretic argument I’ve read that seems to have some real force. Kleiman backs it up with some messier simulations and some real-life examples. Unfortunately, most are stories about cracking down on drugs or other unserious crimes like squeegee men, but the general point seems to work.

Still curious? Learn more about Aaron Swartz. Learn more about crime-control. My thoughts are with his family and friends.