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Ask HN: Why was Aaron Swartz so special?
36 points by lucb1e 905 days ago | 20 comments
I see more news about him than about Steve Jobs when he died. What made Aaron special? I never heard about him before today. Sure, co-authoring RSS is something to be proud of, and so is co-founding Reddit. But anyone with a brain could have developed a technical specification and a website that turns out to be good.. right?

I'm probably missing something, so tell me please.




Aaron is special to me, because I care about the things he cared about. He also answered my emails.

I remember doing what he did to JSTOR, to mytopo.com in 2001. This was a perl script that fetched topographic map tiles, and stitched them together to make a big map.

I printed that map, and brought it on a boundary waters trip.

I remember feeling puzzlement when I saw the north-south tile boundaries didn't quite match.

I remember thinking and testing, and realizing this must be due to the map projection error.

I remember feeling satisfaction using a pencil to calculate how to adjust for the projection. I remember feeling elation when the edges matched exactly.

I remember feeling fear, knowing I was breaking rules. I was doing all this from the office of my employer, after hours.

I remember feeling excitement because of the fear.

I remember the the look of concern on my girlfriend's face when I described the accomplishment and showed her the map. "Oh honey," she said, "Did you hack?"

Half a decade later, I remember writing python scripts to scrape color names from paint manufacturers, to build the first dataset for colr.org. Also in perl.

I remember researching whether color names could be copyrighted.

I remember feeling rather fearless after learning they could not. I remember feeling distinct pleasure at adding "cadbury purple" to the dataset. I remember doing this from home, with no connection to my employer.

I remember porting colr.org to web.py. I remember learning web.py at the same time I learned python, and feeling thankful to Aaron for creating it.

I remember my friend Hamid. He was from Iran. We met in college, studying electrical engineering at a state university. It was not exactly MIT.

Hamid and I were roommates for a year or so. He was older than most US college students. This was because Hamid had lived in hiding for 8 years, during the Iran-Iraq war.

To avoid conscription, his family sent him to live with an uncle in another city. He lived and worked in the basement of the uncle's electronics shop, repairing TVs and other appliances. After the war ended in 1988, Hamid's family got him out of the country.

Hamid rarely talked about this time in his life. But I remember one time someone asked him what that war had been like.

He replied, "You look out the window, and you see the missile come. You see it hit your neighbor's house."

Hamid had a tough time with the math courses required for electrical engineering. He outright failed a few, but he re-took them and passed.

He was a genius in the lab. He could, and would, help anyone with their hardware labwork. He didn't just help, he taught. He was patient and kind. He understood analog electronics with an instinct strengthened by years of practice.

While we were roommates, he took a VCR out of a dumpster, and fixed it. That VCR had been smashed to pieces.

Hamid made really good milk tea.

After he graduated, Hamid was hired as an RF engineer. He spent years driving around the US building cell networks. He told me much of his work involved correcting poor antennas designed and installed by incompetent engineers. "The company is so desperate to build, they hire anyone with a pulse", he told me.

Hamid broke his nation's laws. If he had been caught by the Iranian government, he would be imprisoned or executed.

I remember following Aaron's drama-filled departure from reddit, and some of his further escapades. I remember feeling like this dude was amazing, but maybe too intense. I remember hoping for his peace and happiness, but fearing it might not be in the cards. Aaron lived in interesting times, and he was devoted to stirring up more interest.

I remember the cold feeling in my stomach when I read about the JSTOR arrest. I thought about the topo maps, and the colors.

I remember feeling less regard for Aaron, because he had been caught doing a bad thing. Why did I feel this way?

People break laws, and laws break people.

The law broke Aaron. He was not made of iron. He was made of person.

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I didn't know Aaron and had simply heard his name in the news a few times (i.e. over the whole JSTOR fiasco), so I'm struggling to understand why I personally am responding so strongly to this. I guess there are a lot of little things that add up. For one, the tragedy of debilitating depression. It's always sad when someone loses all hope and decides to end their own life, whether you know them well or not.

Another dimension is the absurdity of the prosecution he was facing, which may have contributed to his despair. The government was making him out to be a thief trying to profit from what they represent as millions of dollars of stolen property. In reality, he was freeing information that rightly should have been free. I believe very strongly in that and I admire the guts it took him to make such a public and illegal statement about it. It's a shame that it cost him so much.

Finally, there's a sense of the things he might have accomplished. He was certainly prodigious and his accomplishments at such a young age really can't be overstated. When Steve Jobs died he had already had a chance to leave his mark on the world. Both could've done more if they had lived.

There's also the fact that he was a YC alum and Reddit cofounder so he has inherent ties to many in this community. So I guess for many it's a very personal loss, and for me it's a complicated but still deeply profound tragedy.

>But anyone with a brain could have developed a technical specification and a website that turns out to be good.. right?

Absolutely not. Many have the technical skills to attempt this, but few have the foresight and drive to succeed, especially at such a young age. What were you doing at 14? People like Aaron Swartz are rare and should be celebrated.

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I'll tell you why he was special to me, even though I have no personal relationship to him.

I am only a year older than him, also a python user, also interested in the same things he was interested in. I followed his progress, read his essays, used his open source software, and am a user of the sites he worked on (e.g. reddit, infogami, jottit). I admire his work a lot and look up to him.

I think his life, ideals, and work resonate with a lot of people here on HN, moreso than Steve Jobs. He's the quintessential hacker. A lot of people identify with that, and are upset over the injustice done to him in the JSTOR case, FBI investigation, etc. That's why you see this kind of reaction over his death.

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I agree. I think it's because he's the quintessential hacker. Many many years ago, Aaron answered some of my questions on Khashmir, which was then used in the only bit torrent program. I don't recall much of it, but I do recall that he was patient with my questions.

I use a lot of his stuff: web.py, reddit, markdown. I read a lot of aaronsw.com. He was a quiet hacker, I think - someone who quietly influenced the world at large

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I'm probably missing something, so tell me please.

We are all hackers. As a collective we mourn the loss of a collegue. Someone from our generation who dreamed of changing the world though code and actually did. That is why the community has responded in such way. He is one of us.

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Right, that makes most sense of all. From what I read I can see why he was a nice guy, but nothing made him 'bigger' than people like Steve Jobs or so. But this combined with that he was 'one of us' and might have known many people here, that makes sense. Thanks for your comment!

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How was Steve Jobs "big"?

The man was an asshole who became what he was by exploiting other people and taking credit for their work.

That's precisely why any nice guy is "bigger" than Jobs.

(And probably any random hacker was more technical than Jobs)

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He was a man with a good heart who, in his attempt to make the world a more just place, made himself the enemy of the powerful and as a result was faced, unjustly, with the loss of his fortune, his freedom, and ultimately, his life.

In other words he fought the good fight--the fight that many of us wish we had the time, courage, or resources to fight--and lost.

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Few people are uncompromising in their ideals and have the talent to enact that vision, especially at a young age. I think it's because aaronsw represents something we all respect and for some, greatly admire. For the HN community, it's as if a key political figure died and we were the key community that knew her, knew of her, and knew her work. A good example may be a civil rights leader, dissident, or environmental leader. For me personally, Aaron was fighting the good fight.

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YC alumnus.

edit: he was in the first batch, actually.

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Besides being apparently bright mind (some would say genius), and freedom activist, he suffered depression and committed suicide. You should seek the reason in the combination of all these factors.

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He was one of us, someone many of us have talked to or met so it hits close to home whereas Steve Jobs was an archetype a billionaire inventor who had lived his dreams.

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He fought for freedom of information.

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So do thousands of others? I'm genuinely not getting it.

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He contributed to the RSS spec, Markdown, Creative Commons, fought SOPA, founded Reddit, and stuck it to the man. I challenge you to name ten people with comparable track records :)

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No. Thousands of others did not fight in the way he did. (And did not, as a result, were indicted with their financials ruined and a good chance of 35 years in prison)

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Basically, he fought for freedom of information to an extent that most other people would not, i.e., he risked committing (what is currently considered) a felony to uphold his principles.

In this sense, he was a martyr who didn't just talk about ideals like so many other internet commenters do, he actually acted on his ideals.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Swartz

Or simply read some of the upvoted obits/tributes. People knew, used, and admired his work, and many here knew him personally.

Good day, sir.

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It depends very strongly on your point of view and the context.

I do not consider Aaron Swartz to be very special in the legal sense. His case was a simple hacking case (as the crime is defined in federal statutes). There was nothing special about it politically or technologically or procedurally. There was nothing special about the "victim" (JSTOR) or the victim choosing not to press charges. Indeed, even the fact that he killed himself is not unique because the incidence of suicide is higher with white collar crimes.

I am aware that my viewpoints on this differ strongly from most of HN, but if you read the comments by the other lawyers on HN, most of them generally agree with my sentiments in this regard.

Aaron was apparently very gifted technically (RSS spec, reddit co-founder, etc.), but as I know little about him in this regard, I cannot intelligently discuss this aspect of his person further.

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> His case was a simple hacking case (as the crime is defined in federal statutes). There was nothing special about it politically or technologically or procedurally

http://goo.gl/CNsfK

  The prosecution's case ultimately depended on whether or 
  not breaking a Terms of Service agreement can be deemed a 
  violation of the 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act -- the 
  principal federal anti-hacking statute. While the law was 
  designed to ban hackers from spreading viruses and stealing 
  property, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that 
  such activity includes violating Terms of Service 
  agreements.

  The Seventh Circuit's decision was widely mocked by 
  internet experts, who noted that nearly anyone could become 
  criminally liable for reading blogs if a blog owner simply 
  set up an outrageous terms of service agreement.

  In addition, a more recent decision by the Ninth Circuit 
  rejected the Seventh Circuit's reasoning in 2010, and the 
  Obama administration chose not to appeal the decision to 
  the Supreme Court.

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