Subjective Justice: The tale of Aaron Swartz

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of The Tower_, the official newspaper of The Bishop’s School._

A lifetime of creativity, innovation, and passion began with Aaron Swartz’s birth in November 1986. But this was abruptly cut short 26 years later, when US attorneys’ hounding of a bright young man for what was essentially trespassing pushed him to suicide.

The epitome of the 21st century prodigy, Swartz came up at the age of 13 with the idea that Jimmy Wales later developed into Wikipedia. The next year, he coauthored the RSS standard, used today in RSS feeds, real-time documents which present blog content in a standard format for applications like Google Reader to access.

Then Swartz cofounded Reddit, a massive online news community. As an advocate for civic liberties and openness, he started DemandProgress, a group instrumental to the fight against the SOPA and PIPA online censorship bills. And he confronted PACER, the documentation system the United States legal system uses to make court proceedings available online at a fee.

Aiming to make these public domain documents available to all at zero cost, Swartz created a browser extension named RECAP that allowed PACER users to upload accessed documents to the Internet Archive Web site. His creativity in challenging restrictions on public information earned him many powerful enemies among the defenders of the status quo. But most daring of all was his final stunt — downloading 4 million JSTOR documents from an unlocked closet at MIT — and the enemies that action yielded.

Aaron Swartz

To understand how JSTOR works, imagine you are a scientific researcher. You apply for and receive grants from government agencies including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, both funded by taxpayer money. Your university collects around half of your grant money as overhead, which is then used to fund the administration, maintain buildings and other infrastructure — and also to purchase subscriptions to electronic publications.

One such digital source of science articles is JSTOR, which makes many publications available online and charges universities around $50,000 a year for access. You receive the remaining funds, do research, and then present the results as a research paper. In order to publish, though, you often have to pay the publisher a fee of several thousand dollars, again coming from that grant money.

Next, the magazine collects this money and asks fellow researchers to review your submission pro-bono. If all goes well, you get published — but your university is then told that to see your work, they must purchase a subscription to the magazine in which you had just paid to be published.

Such is the predicament of the academic, who is a creator earning little financial benefit. Meanwhile, taxpayers pay for science thrice: first they fund the research, then they pay publishing fees, and finally they buy back the final product from publishers in the form of restricted online subscriptions. But sharing information openly is the foundation of science and of innovation. That value stems from our culture’s early days, when Jefferson claimed, “He who receives an idea from me receives [it] without lessening [me], as he who lights his [candle] at mine receives light without darkening me.” Lighting a second candle means the amount of light has doubled; when research papers, data, and ideas are available to more people, innovating is easier.

Swartz simply wanted to allow open access to these papers written by public employees, with public money, and potentially benefitting wide groups of researchers ultimately leading to a faster pace of innovations. He wanted to bring the candle holders together and spread knowledge by doubling the light.

The range of judicial responses to crime

Ideally, our legal system should enable innovation, not prevent the sharing of ideas. JSTOR accepted this reasoning: the company peacefully asked Swartz to return the hard drives containing the downloaded data and modified their system to prevent future bulk downloading. But MIT called in federal investigators and wouldn’t drop the case, even after JSTOR reached its resolution with Swartz. Soon, a grand jury indicted Swartz with 13 felonies. At the time of his death, he faced 35 years in prison and over $1 million in fines — all for downloading articles. Compare that to armed bank robbery, a graver crime which carries a maximum term of 25 years. Attempting to spread knowledge should neither be met with a higher prison sentence, nor should it be considered a crime at all.

Were any bankers hounded with threats of long prison sentences to the brink of suicide during the financial crisis? Arguably, their crimes affected far more people than did Swartz’s trespassing in an unlocked closet at MIT. But U.S. attorneys chose not to pursue them with the law; only Swartz faced a de-facto witch trial.

The difference is that bankers have good lawyers, and it’s easy to defeat defenseless prodigies. Susie Bright, who has served as expert witness for the defense in several obscenity trials, explains in her blog post entitled “I Have Something to Say about Aaron Swartz’s Suicide and the Special Way the US Justice Dept Hounds People to Death”:

[When] the Defense team showed me all their files… I dropped their papers to the floor halfway through my review: “What are we talking about here? This defendant is developmentally disabled…” The Justice Department was bagging obscenity law trophies by going after the poor, the suicidal, the insane, the cognitively impaired— because that’s the way they rack up numbers and status. That’s the way they fuel their careers at the Justice Department— not by taking on constitutional issues, or injustice, or fat cats who believe they’re above the law.

Here, Swartz was the low-hanging fruit. He had published multiple blog posts about suffering from depression. When the US attorneys hit him with enough felony counts for doing something that shouldn’t be a crime, something snapped. This genius did not just commit suicide; he took his own life after facing unwarranted, excessive legal threats for doing what he believed to be the right thing to do.

That day, we lost a man devoted to his ideals of making information free and open for the world. And once again, our legal system showed how effective it is in heartlessly protecting the status quo against easy targets, killing innovation and progress. Be it in patent law or overzealous pursuits of petty criminals, legal power is ruled by money and fear, not by intellect or morality. Aaron Swartz, among others, had the potential to change this world in meaningful ways – and did, even in a short life, through Wikipedia, RSS, Reddit, DemandProgress, and RECAP — but we took his possibilities, his freedom, and his life away.

Until we reform our justice system to support fairness and openness over brutality and greed, our society will continue picking on those who try to fix it.

Academic writing from last year of high school

Russian Writers class

Here are several of the essays I wrote in the Russian Writers course I took during my last year of high school.

We covered a few seminal works of Russian literature in this clsas. The essays below are the products of research and discussion about two such pieces: Crime and Punishment and One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovitch.

French Magazine

I’ve posted The Bishop’s School French Magazine issues from the past two academic years on the dedicated Bishops French Journal website.

Here are dedicated links to collections from each year:

Love Thy Enemy: The Selfish Power of Cooperation

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of The Tower_, the official newspaper of The Bishop’s School._

It is a fact of life here in America that we are all intrinsically competitive. But we are also taught that helping others is morally right. How can we reconcile altruistic actions like community service with a society that professes individual advancement over all else?

Evolutionary game theorists have proposed a solution to this conundrum. If we accept that we are selfish people by nature, they claim, then we are morally — and instinctually — inclined to help others because we really want to help ourselves.

Imagine that you are traveling overseas and find yourself in a remote part of some foreign land. Few, if any, people are around, but you stumble across one native swimming — no, wait: drowning — in a freezing lake. The fated question: should you jump in and save him?

First, let’s think about this situation analytically. If you don’t jump in, nothing happens to you, and the swimmer probably dies. (For the sake of this example, let’s pretend that his death doesn’t affect you – later, we’ll see why it might.)

But if you do jump in, then you risk your life. After all, your chances of dying that day are much higher if you spend your time trying to swim in icy water. And it seems that you get no benefit from helping the drowning stranger. For one, you’re overseas, so your social reputation back home doesn’t improve. Next, the principles of evolution tell us that humans and animals aim to promote their own genes. Leaving the stranger to die gives your genes an advantage — albeit slight — towards proliferating through the human race! And finally, remember that morality doesn’t affect you, so you don’t feel any better for being a hero.

Jumping in is a bad move, analytically speaking. Nevertheless, instinct tells us to do so! Something’s wrong with this picture: if it truly were a bad decision, then humans with the instinctual response to jump in would die more often that those without it. This means that over time, the global population would have evolved to only have humans without this instinctual response. But that’s not what we see.

We forgot something crucial: reciprocity.

In the early 1970s, an evolutionary biologist by the name of Robert Trivers proposed a r-evolution-ary idea. He called it reciprocal altruism. According to this theory, it is advantageous for one animal to aid those who help them. If groups of animals begin reciprocating each other’s cooperation, whether that means working together to solve a problem or making small sacrifices to help each other, then over time, an altruistic society will evolve.

Direct reciprocity is the name of immediate mutual cooperation. For instance, cleaner fish and their hosts engage in direct reciprocity: in exchange for cleaning the host, the cleaner is protected from potential predators. Since this is beneficial for both parties involved, over time hosts become more generous — that’s why it’s rare to find a potential host fish nowadays that would eat a cleaner fish. In fact, host fish can be observed to protect their cleaners if a predator shows up!

But cooperation can also happen across long periods of time — or with completely different people! Indirect reciprocity explains the concept of “paying it forward”: if someone helps you out, and then you continue the trend and help someone else, this scenario is good for all parties involved. Evolutionarily speaking, this trend will then survive, so you can expect help when you need it.

That intuition powers the decision to risk your life to save a drowning swimmer. If you help the stranger out, you continue a societal trend that encourages people to take small personal risks in order to assist others. As a result, you know that when you are in a bad situation, someone will come to your aid. This is why it is smart to follow your instinct and choose to take that risk — if you don’t, the social trend of altruism becomes vulnerable to extinction.

When people in our culture attempt to do away with altruism in favor of a free for all, they fail to realize that every individual is better off if cooperation survives.

To see the power of this intuition, let’s consider another example: five different species of birds live on a single tree. Each species is better off when birds of other species die, because their genes are more populous and thus have higher access to the scarce resources necessary for survival.

Now, let’s imagine that one bird spots an incoming predator. Should the bird call out and warn the other birds to flee, in the process revealing its own position to the predator?

There is certainly less risk for the bird if it chooses the antagonistic behavior of not warning anyone else. But if the bird does call out, then it promotes a trend of taking a risk to help others. Indirect reciprocity tells us that it is better to continue this trend: by taking a risk now, the caller bird attempts to ensure that it will be warned of future incoming predators by other birds. Birds who follow this trend survive more often than those who do not, and thus the trait of paying back a debt of survival, or even paying it forward, is evolutionary selected for.

Now, both these examples concern situations where moral values are negligible. But in real life this is not the case — the decisions we make are shaped the culture nurtured into us.

Let’s examine the origins of morality. We will find that the surrounding culture rests upon instinctual tenets that follow the principles of indirect reciprocity. Our distant ancestors made decisions without consulting codes formed by society — simply because there was no society to speak of: civilization had not yet evolved. Back then, the only driving force behind actions was raw instinct.

Over time, the humans with a biological instinct to help others, in expectation of being helped in the future, fared better than uncooperative humans, so that genetic line dominated the population. By the time society popped up, cooperators were the main, if not the only, group in town. They were the ones who wrote the first moral codes — the harsh codes of corresponding conduct that punish — severely — those who do not follow the rules, and on a more fundamental level, who don’t cooperate, who steal from others. The punishments enforced by our own society stem back even to the reciprocal principles of Hammurabi’s Code — an eye for an eye.

It’s no surprise that the morality of today contains these same fundamental instinctual traits: care for others, altruism, cooperation, and risk-taking for the sake of other people. As these values permeate our culture and are taught to children, moral sustenance and clever selfishness work hand-in-hand to leave you and your allies better off.

But troves of laymen believe that helping others undermines our individual advancement. Isolationists, for example, argue that it is in the national interest to help America exclusively; assisting other nations instead would divert precious resources at a pressing time. We need to watch out for such greed in our society — it could very well wipe out indirect reciprocity altogether. And if this trend disappears, then humanity will be worse off as a whole, because cooperation will slowly fade from our behaviors, our morals, and eventually even from our instincts. This means that we must realize how intertwined altruism and individual advancement really are — or else we risk losing the foundation of what makes us human.

Forget College - Go to Preschool

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of The Tower_, the official newspaper of The Bishop’s School._

Americans are no strangers to politicians overlooking flaws in The System. Among these forgotten issues is the lack of funding for preschool programs in America.

In contrast to what our schools seem to focus on, early education has a much greater influence on future success than later learning. To see why, let’s look at the state of our growing generation.

Under today’s system, as soon as public schooling begins (with kindergarten), children from disadvantaged backgrounds already begin to fall behind in their education, in comparison to their luckier peers, who spent the last few years being nurtured in basic skills and understanding of the world in preschool. Early learning in preschool provides an important and straightforward start to math, science, English, and art education.

And kids without a preschool education never catch up. They continue struggling with fundamental literacy and math in elementary school, while the rest push forward and capture more information and opportunities. This early disparity persists through the rest of the K—12 system and beyond, especially as these kids are ultimately split into separate groups in the college application process. The preschool-lacking, under-performing kids find themselves with poor or no college options, while the remainder anxiously await and excitedly celebrate Ivy Day.

This learning disadvantage takes a noticeable toll on the later lives of children who did not attend preschool. Researchers demonstrate just how large the effect is in the 2011 paper “School-Based Early Childhood Education and Age-28 Well-Being,” published in Science. Tracking kids from preschool to the age of 28, the team of scientists discovered that those who went to preschool were 24% more likely to go to college and had a 28% less chance of being imprisoned or developing alcohol/drug addictions.

These numbers don’t lie. Thankfully, the solution here is simple: extend public schooling programs to the preschool years, so that everyone gets an equal and positive advantage.

Naturally, one concern is where the money for this will come from — after all, taxpayers are already footing a large bill. But unfortunately, there is a bigger problem: the current school system is woefully ineffective. In fact, it misses the entire point of learning. For instance, here is my own experience of the American K-12 educational system:

  • K—2: The focus lies on basic reading and writing skills. Experienced students excel; the rest linger and barely advance. I was stuck in the middle.
  • 3: School is getting interesting: we are expanding into simple math and science!
  • 4: This year, I lucked out and had a terrible teacher. There was little reason for me to come to school; instead, I spent my days at home exploring what interested me. I imagine that this happens at some point in everyone’s K—12 career.
  • 5: Now I have an interesting teacher! But the first half of the year is spent on transferring a violent child out of the class and to another school.
  • 6: Preparation for middle school; so much plate tectonics that I start having dreams about it.
  • 7—8: Trivial, bite-sized versions of literature, history, and science.
  • 9: Dedicated to smoothing the transition to high school, calming our nerves, and little else.
  • 10—11: Legitimate, rigorous studies.
  • 12: As soon as college apps are out of the way, all scholarly activity stops. #YOLO

We have all accepted this system as the status quo — but it is tragically flawed. Very little learning actually takes place: K—2 teaches the basics, then 10—11 confers real material to students.

In the interim, three entire years are dedicated simply to transitioning to the next lifestyle, be that middle or high school — with no meaningful learning in the meantime. Of the entire 13 year experience, we have yet to discuss 3rd—5th and 7th—8th grades — in my experience, those have focused on very simple, inapplicable material that is promptly discarded as soon as summer rolls around.

If we are only providing five years of sustained, rigorous education, then why are we keeping mature, young adults in school and away from the real world? Let’s remove the 12th grade — the last useful year, after all, appears to be 11th grade. Students have no need to thaw for an entire year of inactivity before experiencing the real world for themselves.

An even more pertinent concern lies with what this educational process attempts to prepare students for — college. In putting our students through this elaborate pre-collegiate operation, we are making a dangerous assumption: that college is the right choice for everyone.

Our society confirms this belief, since the college path is heavily advertised; we regard those who opt for an alternative future with disdain. But so many college graduates cannot find work and nowadays simply sit and suffer under massive debt. It’s time for us to realize that college isn’t the right choice for everyone, after all.

Instead, it’s time to popularize new post-graduation paths. In the U.S., vocational education is strangely unpopular, whereas in many other Western countries, such as Switzerland and Finland, this training is a standard part of high-school education and technicians, craftsmen, accountants, engineers, and so on who were educated vocationally are respected in society.

Under our current system, our growing generations are poorly educated and diversified, and this is unacceptable if we wish to maintain America’s role in the global economy and culture. To fix this systemic issue, we must redefine the system itself. Here is my proposition:

  • Preschool: Mandatory and federally funded.
  • K—3: Intensive reading, writing, and math education. They can all handle it, thanks to preschool.
  • 4—5: Rigorous literature and history curriculum to make these students worldly. Here, a standard program should be used to minimize how much quality of education at this early stage depends on whether the teacher is good.
  • 6—10: The transitions to middle and high school are immediate. Real lab science taught to all, so that students have actual, practical understanding, not simply brief glances at plate tectonics or how light refracts through prisms. And the literature and history courses become even more rigorous as studied texts become more complex. Furthermore, basic IT and computer science skills are taught to everyone, so using basic technology is not an issue and also to allow students to apply computers as a tool to any field.
  • End of 10: Students are divided into two tracks by means of IQ and reasoning tests, essay writing, and interviews. Students on one track are college-bound, while the rest enter into vocational training. Both programs are prestigious — PR campaigns must attempt to transform vocational studies into an appreciated field.
  • College 11—12: Intensive learning of real math, science, language, and history. Students leave high school with training, experience, and enough maturity to tackle real-world problems.
  • Vocational 11—12: Math, science, and other disciplines are taught, but in a more applied fashion, as opposed to having a focus on theory. At the end of high school, students enter the job market having significant experience in vocational studies.

For our country to survive, we must train our children to their fullest potential. In order to do so, we ought to revise our K-12 system so that it focuses on learning — not on getting into college. Once we refine the specific components, high school graduates will not be unemployed with mounds of debt. Instead, they will all immediately excel in lucrative and diverse professions, working together to secure America’s collective future prosperity.

The failure of "college for all"

On the road to the future: exploring the self-driving car revolution

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of The Tower_, the official newspaper of The Bishop’s School._

You fall into a panic along I-5 as a truck up ahead drops a pile of logs into your lane. But the fear subsides as the car you are not driving quickly merges lanes to avoid the obstacle. Your unprompted savior is part of the latest generation of automobiles: self-driving cars.

Barreling down the highway at exactly the speed limit, these cars use cleverly engineered sensors to detect terrain, road conditions, other drivers, and pedestrians. Twenty times a second, they activate their Light Detection and Ranging System (LIDAR), collecting distance measurements from 64 lasers that work much like radar. Then infrared cameras highlight hazards up ahead, while other cameras track lane markings. All this data forms a real-time, 360-degree view that the computer of each vehicle uses to adjust to unforeseen circumstances in real time, constantly recalibrating its path to avoid obstacles. Say goodbye to car accidents, one of the leading causes of death in America. With their 50-millisecond reaction time, we learn from the New York Times article “Google Cars Drive Themselves, In Traffic” that they have suffered just one accident in the 300,000 miles they have driven on their own: getting rear-ended while stopped at a red light.

What the car sees

Imagine what your lifestyle will become as we move to autonomous cars. As you finish breakfast and get ready for school in the morning, a car arrives outside. You climb in and relax; the car remembers your favorite radio station and tunes to it automatically. Then it picks up your carpool buddy, depositing both of you at school. What if you later realize that you forgot something at home? No problem: the car ferries the item to you.

Not only do these technological advances spell out safety and convenience for commuters, but they also make it less attractive to own a car as rental alternatives rise to power. Autonomous vehicles are slowly falling into the favor of state regulations — they are currently legal to operate on California, Nevada, and Florida roads. And companies like Zipcar have already been wildly successful at forming garages with cars available for rent by the hour. When the populace eventually adopts self-driving cars, we will see Zipcar-esque garages stockpiled with computer-driven cars that are ready to pick you up at a moment’s notice. No longer will the victims of urban sprawl resort to purchasing personal cars to commute; instead, car availability will likely be provided by corporations that earn profits by minimizing the amount of “dead time” each car spends parked and not out on the road.

Although this future entails big savings for those who commute for a few hours a day or fewer, these changes will be devastating for our delivery industry and for the retail infrastructure developed for private cars. Immediately, truck drivers will lose their jobs as they are replaced by self-driving trucks — when cars drive themselves 24/7, who needs a truck driver, anyway? Similarly, the future spells out the bust of gas stations, as rent-a-car garage companies purchase fuel directly and use less by forming intelligent carpools and minimizing congestion on the roads. The age of the taxi ends here, too; and wish your mechanic goodbye as large rent-a-car garages choose to purchase new cars over the more expensive path of repairing older ones, or develop car servicing agreements with large repair shops and dealerships.

Besides the massive job losses stemming from the automation, and the need for massive re-training of workers in the automotive and delivery services, local government revenues will tank as parking tickets and driving citations disappear. Fewer traffic cops and driving schools will be needed as well. Automated driving will not only push the unemployment rate to new extremes, but the resources for providing safety nets to take care of these newly displaced workers will dry up as cities recoup fewer funds via human driving-related charges.

The self-driving car revolution appears inevitable and it will result in a more efficient and safer society that uses its resources more effectively. Yet its negative ramifications are significant. Along with homeownership, personal car ownership is a vital component of the American Dream. Thus, switching to driverless cars will be a serious cultural and psychological change — one that cannot happen overnight. We must gradually find a balance between increasing overall productivity and comfort and maintaining a balanced society with low unemployment — otherwise, job losses in the automotive sector will not be neutralized by new jobs in other areas. If we start reshaping our attitudes to driving now, and start preparing for massive re-education programs, we can avoid flushing the entire service industry down the drain and simultaneously create a new, more productive work force that has higher technical skills. This would ultimately resolve in a higher quality of life for citizens, giving them more time to embrace culture and enjoy themselves, and allowing our society to dedicate manpower to our dreams of exploring space.

As the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.” Removing the hassles of car driving and ownership would be a giant leap for our society – but also a serious transition that requires careful planning in order to avoid social catastrophes and devastation for large groups of American people.