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Today is the fifth anniversary of Aaron Swartz's death
709 points by saaronm 9 months ago | hide | past | web | 82 comments | favorite

I always remember the quote from Sir Tim Berners-Lee about his death:

> Aaron is dead. Wanderers in this crazy world, we have lost a mentor, a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down, we have lost one of our own. Nurturers, carers, listeners, feeders, parents all, we have lost a child. Let us all weep.

I came here to post that.


This StackOverflow question from Aaron about using rsync to download and copy lots of files is like a piece of history frozen in time.


And the required context, for those coming across this: Aaron was under investigation for downloading an archive of academic articles from within MIT (because they'd otherwise cost a lot), presumably to make them available outside free of large, much like Sci-Hub does nowadays.

He committed suicide during the investigation, and it's supposedly not unlikely to be related to the pressure the investigation and trumped-up charges brought him. And then there's those that surmise he was murdered, of course.

See also this documentary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Internet%27s_Own_Boy

Knowing that context (besides the suicide) makes the question so hilarious to read!


Kind of close to tears, knowing the sacrifice this man made in the name of open access and freedom. May his name never be unwritten from history.

And this got my attention:

> Last seen Jan 4 '13 at 19:23

The names of his machines "speed" and "mass". Very cute.

The feature request to protect questions like his has been promptly downvoted on StackOverflow Meta:


Please remember that Stack Overflow does not welcome any kind of meta commentary about a question's author in that question's comments or answers.

Stack Overflow does not welcome much of anything these days

[marked as duplicate]

Just good quality content, like always...

Yep, in threads closed and marked "off topic".

[thread closed as primarily opinion-based]

And of course someone added a revision just now, for some minor style tweaks.

Also, the editor is a SO moderator

The SO moderator was rolling back an edit made by another user.

Yep, you're right, I didn't read the revision comment

Wonder what his solution was. I'd be tempted to rebuild rsync with some download completion checks patched in.

Say your downloader times out after 3 min.

1. Use find to compile a list of files that have not changed: find /path/to -type f -mmin +3 > mylist.txt

2. Tell rsync only to sync files on the list: rsync -a --files-from=mylist.txt /path/to remote:/backup

3. Homework: make sure it does not barf on strange filename.

You should post that answer on the question - it may be useful to someone else some time.

I still use his `html2text` python library on occasion.

Is it not time for an annual "Upvote Aaron day"?

Nope, if only because you can upvote a question only once and he only had five questions asked.

It'll serve as a reminder, and if it gets traction it might be the most upvoted question on StackOverflow. I think that is a very fitting celebration of Aaron. Once every year, it'll reach a few more people.

His blog Raw Thought (http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/) details his experiences. I found his memoirs about Stanford particularly interesting. An example entry:

""" Surrounding them were groups of kids chatting. Clearly social rituals depend on communication, which is presumably used to get a sense of the kind of person the other is. In my culture (of vaguely technical people), people converse by sharing information through mutually-beneficial discussion and debate, but the teenager's system is altogether different and wholly alien to me.

I have little firsthand experience, but I have developed an initial theory of how things work. The protocol begins by sharing basic personal information to establish identity, then moves to the humorous recitation of cultural information. (Humorous may be too strong a word; the key point is that there's a lot of laughing.) This is the beginning of a loop. The two parties exchange information, allowing them to get a better sense of each other. If the clearer picture is disliked, the party breaks the loop and disassociates. Otherwise, more personal knowledge is shared as the parties get to know each other better. Discussion moves from cultural issues, to societal ones, to gossip, to personal matters, to deep intimate issues, presumably shared with close lovers or friends. """ ― http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/001421

Aaron's second paragraph there sounds like Social Penetration Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_penetration_theory

I wanted an Aaron Swartz t-shirt so I made these graphics:

For dark fabric: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6fL4G1FVF-AdHhCdVU4UHhCNk0...

For medium shade fabric: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6fL4G1FVF-AblFNYlBrWTJmems...

(Even though these look dark against a white background, it works best if the gray shadow part is darker than the fabric color: dark example: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1RY9wtKNtDzKdZKF-eAa_vYNCXU...)

Source Inkscape SVG: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6fL4G1FVF-AbHB3ZW9CZWNDVmc...

Based on a photo by Sage Ross (CC BY-SA) ragesoss.com/blog/2013/07/12/the-use-aaron-swartz-photographs/

I printed one on zazzle.com on a dark t-shirt but it seems I can't share the design without becoming some kind of t-shirt vendor and take a royalty which I don't care to do. If you want one, you will have to upload the image yourself.

Still the Federal Prosecutors are just as aggressive as before this event. We had the Supreme Court having to get involved in the Virginia Governor case where he and his wife were prosecuted. He set up meetings for a donor and those meetings got the person zero money or business. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonnell_v._United_States Personal Note: My friend is a mayor and is under Federal Prosecution. He was wired for 2 years by two people, one of which made $500,000 in three years and didn't declare it to the IRS. He earned his money by illegal political means. My friend has hundreds of hours on tape and thousands of documents and after lawyers and people going through them there is nothing there. He has stated his innocents since day one and there is zero direct evidence yet trial starts in a few weeks. Federal Prosecutor has released statements and quotes of the recordings that were one sided and actually if they just let the quote go for one more sentence it would show that my friend actually told everyone to stop doing anything to anyone. The person being wired actually said that the mayor has never done anything wrong so we have to set him up and the FBI informant actually sent out illegal texts and emails to a possible campaign donor. My friend confronted him on tape and told him to cut it out and to stop this or else they would all go to jail. US Court System is unbalanced and it will sentence possibly innocent people multiple times higher sentences over people caught red handed and plea bargain. It is better to lie and admit guilt than to fight for your innocence.

Edit: Spelling

Yeah, anyone who is surprised by shitty things done by the "Justice" Department has no clue about them: they exist entirely to do shitty things and that's basically all they ever do. Once you're on their radar, you might as well emigrate, because your life here will suck, no matter what you do or don't do.

We barely crossed paths, but in the couple of interactions we had he changed my engineering for the better.

In particular, he demanded that all features have measurable success criteria and if they didn't happen he pulled the feature from the code base.

Simple and elegant way of keeping your code base small and focused. The real miracle there was he got the customer to agree and held them to it. I still don't know how he did that.

How are you supposed to test it if there's no success criteria? And by extension, how are you going to write good software without tests?

Sorry, I wasn't clear.

It wasn't if the software functioned the way that we wanted (is the business logic correct), so much as did it have the effect on the business that we wanted.

The criteria would have been something a long the lines of:

"By adding this ad banner to this page template we will increase revenue by 5% per page view", or

"By adding this widget to the on boarding page we will reduce drop out by 50%".

If your feature didn't have the business impact it was supposed to, it was pulled. Maybe the widget actually increases drop out? Maybe increasing ads reduced page views?

But it prioritized being to answer those kinds of questions. Very neat.

Never worked with professional-in-other-field types? Nothing is ever 100% specified, either initially or at any moment going forward. Best you can do is pick highlights from the stream of desires and try to code to those, and expect to get it 'wrong' 100% of the time until its suddenly OK for any one of a hundred reasons.

Or have someone suddenly cut the contract off and never finish.

Good software without tests: not easy but can, rarely, happen anyway.

"The way Aaron always thought is that programming is magic, right? You can accomplish these things that normal humans can't, by being able to program. So, if you had magical powers, would you use them for good, or to make you mountains of cash?" [0]

I feel this conflict also here on HN. When a point is made why a technology or development is bad because of it's political impact on our society, always there is the response that you gotta have profit. When for so many people profit is more important than what is right, then negativity towards that is not only understandable, but an ethical imperative.

We have powers we never had before. We transform this world, we shift power and open new possibilites. We must not let profit and money steer it, for this is much too important.

The masses meander around, wiping over shining tablets, consuming what gatekeepers let them see, using the magic they have in their hands only in golden jails their platforms force them in. We must never accept that, and fight it every day.

[0] around 24:00 of The Internet's Own Boy - The Story of Aaron Swartz

On a request from a friend who thought it might be handy to have the domain ready but registered outside of the states, I owned freeaaronsw.com for a while with the intention of using it for a campaign against the prosecution later on.

The "oh, fuck, we're already too late" sensation I had when I saw his death announced stays with me to this day.

I am so sad for you

Eh, I was just helping out. Hold onto that thought and if you ever meet somebody who was actually close to him, give them a hug or something instead :)

Rest in peace you beautiful beautiful heart.

I would like to recommend the documentary "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron" for everyone to watch.

Which is, of course, available for free under a creative commons license: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLxpTGsclXM

Just started watching it. Heartbreaking.

It would be nice to see reddit have some sort of memorial. Sadly, I think the "new" reddit finds his memory a bit uncomfortable.

Reddit's founders have stated that Aaron's story about his history at reddit isn't truthful so it's no surprise they're snubbing him.

Here's a 10 year old thread about various Aaron's claims regarding reddit and Wired.


PG, at your link:

Aaron's not wrong to call himself one of the founders. The company behind Reddit was a merger of two startups, one that made Reddit and one that made Infogami, and in that situation the founders of both startups are considered founders of the combined company.

Without knowing the details about this particular case that sounds wrong.

Note how PG subtly shifted from „Aaron co-founded Reddit the product“ (what everyone meant) to „Aaron co-founded the company that today owns Reddit“, which is defensible, but mostly uninteresting.

I consider that dishonest.

Here is a list of the books he read and enjoyed the most from 2006 to 2011.


Very illuminating to see how wide his interests were.

Pardon me for asking, but why a third-party source?

They're all on his blog[0], which is still alive.

[0] http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/books2011

Reading through his review of The Trial is surreal.

"DFW's suicide hit me very hard. I ended up coping by reading every piece of nonfiction he'd ever published. He was a brilliant, tortured man and I see so much of myself in him. His nonfiction was fantastic and I will consider my life a success if I can do half of what he did. . . . "

That's pretty crushing

People like Aaron Swartz represent the future of humanity. The people that attacked him represent the dark past.

He was one of us, on this very site, and then he wasn't.


I was doing some research today on the topic of RSS and stumbled upon his name. I remembered seeing his name before but did not remember who he was. Now seeing this pop up -- what an uncanny amount of coincidence. He seems like an incredible influential person with a story that must not be forgotten.

One of his posts - "Believe you can change" [1] - has helped me a lot with motivation issues. Thank you indeed.

[1]: http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/dweck

I was thinking about him the other day funnily enough. I was thinking about Reddit and the contribution that has made to modern social discourse, and how it has elucidated the discussion on freedom of speech, the perceived kind versus the legal, constitutional kind. I feel sad that he came to the end that he did, and that he didn't get to see the course of the fiery debate he kicked off. Hard to believe it's been five years.

Thanks for the feelz :(

I made a script to compile all his blog posts to .mobi ebook if anyone interested, just in case his site goes down.


Sad day for the tech community.

And two weeks ago was the second aniversary of Ian Murdock's death. Time flies.

In today's age of dramatic economic and political inequality, it does not matter how talented you are or how hard you work. American meritocracy is a sham and Swartz's death is the proof.

Oh wow. I recently dug up Max Payne again. Guess what, I find some of the content to be quite inspiring:

The trick in my situation was that there was no trick, no matter what the movies tell you. No rules, no secret Mantra, no road map. It wasn't about how smart or how good you were. It was chaos and luck, and anyone who thought different was a fool. All you could do was hang on madly, as long and hard as you could.

For a lot of people the decisions and actions they make can (and will) shape their circumstance..

Swartz was succeeding mightily by virtue of his merits. His death was his response to a decision he made that had predictably unpleasant consequences.

I doubt Aaron anticipated the level of blowback.

We love you Aaron.

Never forget how prominent HN members treated him during his last call for help to this forum. Aaron was a special person and we are all diminished by his passing.

He did not fit our world and it was primarily a failing of the world that he did not.

Well gee, he seemed to fit the world better than most people do.

Whatever that means. But he seems to have met a lot of inspiring people, people he could work with, found important stuff to do etc. More than most people do in a life time, much more.

Any memorial to Aaron should include the name of the federal attorney whose prosecution for copying journal articles was so overzealous that Aaron saw suicide as his best option.

He shouldn't be subjected to a witch hunt or mob justice, but he should be placed in context (and in search results) for history (and the public) to judge: Stephen P. Heymann.

That would be Carmen Ortiz.

Stepped down January of 2017 https://boingboing.net/2017/01/15/carmen-ortiz-the-prosecuto...

Joined Boston law firm, Anderson & Kreiger https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2017/09/05/former-attor...

The puff piece in the Boston Globe mentions controversy in the humblebragging-est way, "overzealous prosecution, particularly in public corruption cases." Please Ms. Ortiz, what is your biggest weakness? I just work too damn hard to defend the American people from criminals like Aaron Swartz.

No mention of her attempting (and losing) her illegal seizer of the hotel in Tewksbury [0]. No mention of Aaron Swartz.

[0] http://legacy.wbur.org/2012/11/14/tewksbury-motel-owner-figh...

Overzealous prosecution is the default, not the exception. Prosecutors build their careers on high profile convictions. It's a systemic problem.

MIT was not without fault either.

> MIT was not without fault either.

Shameful and weak is the phrase you are looking for. The follow on report [0] by Hal Abelson showed a lack of personal and institutional critical integrity.

[0] http://swartz-report.mit.edu/

It is to their credit, however, that they commissioned and publicized that report. I have a hard time imagining my alma mater up the street doing the same in a similar situation.

I find it disappointing that the front page of Reddit isn't flooded with Aaron Swartz posts.

Can anyone explain why it is not on the front page of HN as well? The post is 3 hours old, has over 500 upvotes and yet still is not to be seen on the front page.

It was #1 earlier today; with 595 points it's now #123. Presumably mods have adjusted it somehow? I can't imagine HN has enough anti-"politics" zealots to flag it down to that point.

If this were about the anniversary of the death of a mainstream celebrity, it would have been flagged outright, and deservedly so. But even given Aaron Swartz' background and popularity within the community, this thread doesn't present an interesting new phenomenon or anything to gratify intellectual curiosity. A sentimental footnote doesn't deserve to be on the front page.

I see. That makes sense, thank you.

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