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18 March 2013

Aaron Swartz: 1986-2013

I find it strange how I’m constantly pulled to this internet website for the purpose of obituaries, meditations on peoples’ passings. Maybe the online world really is a kind of death?

Anyhoo, the life of Aaron Swartz presents a mixed take on that notion. As much an activist as he was a programmer — and, to my mind, as much a kind of artist of the world — he committed suicide earlier this year, under duress from government prosecution and the machinations of his own mind. This posthumous profile by Wesley Yang — “The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz” — is well done, and filled with moments of deep thought & grace. It balances the necessity of depicting Swartz as a complicated person (probably problematic, certainly frustrating) without ever disrespecting his sensitive, probing, and justice-minded intellect. And you should read it both as a tribute to a 20something who died too young, and for insights into the emerging digital world.

Here are some key excerpts in which Yang traces Swartz’s thinking and how it derived from the hacker ethics…

Again and again, his friends made the point that Swartz’s open-access activism was merely the prologue to his truly immodest ambition to “hack the whole world,” and to realize his dream of “a world without any injustice or suffering of any kind.” His closest friends and family were keen to reject any effort to “pathologize” Swartz’s condition, though he had himself described it as a sickness. “Aaron was depressed because God is depressed,” said [Lawrence] Lessig at his funeral. “Look at this world and what we have done — who wouldn’t be depressed.”

In a blog post a few months later, Swartz engages in a brief philosophical inquiry into how a person can live a moral life. “The conclusion is inescapable: we must live our lives to promote the most overall good. And that would seem to mean helping those most in want — the world’s poorest people.” He would go on to specify which moral actors he found the most admirable. “Our rule demands one do everything they can to help the poorest — not just spending one’s wealth and one’s possessions, but breaking the law if that will help,” he wrote. “It seems like these criminals, not the average workaday law-abiding citizens, should be our moral exemplars.”

Steven Levy in his seminal book Hackers, neatly evoked the working principles that governed the hacker ethic: “Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems — about the world — from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things,” he wrote. “They resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this…. Imperfect systems infuriate hackers, whose primal instinct is to debut them…In a perfect hacker world, anyone pissed off enough to open up a control box near a traffic light and take it apart to make it work better should be perfectly welcome to make the attempt. Rules that prevent you from taking matters like that into your own hands are too ridiculous to even consider abiding by.”

Apologies for the lack of bridging material, or plot points in Swartz’s life story. You need to read the original piece to connect the dots — all the better reason for you to turn to the original source.

And if you’re willing to go deeper still, you can read the contentious comments section on Yang’s article or, a better suggestion, it might be nice for you to spend a few moments with Aaron’s still-extant social media presences — a nice record of a mind as focused on analysis of new sci-fi and comic book movies, and jokes about Parks & Recreation as he was with social justice. Some have called Swartz a martyr; it’s somehow comforting to read evidence that he also had a sense of humor and a sense of joy.



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8 March 2013

J.M. Coetzee, Jesus Christ & a visit to Adelaide

Lying prone in a front room of a Melbourne suburb, I’m reading this J.M. Coetzee essay about Aussie poet Les Murray. I did not previously know of Murray or his poems — my bad, my loss, he is apparently “the leading Australian poet of his generation.” Could be! At least I was quite struck by these lines excerpted in Coetzee’s piece:

(bird minds and ours are so pointedly visual):

a field all foreground, and equally all background,

like a painting of equality. Of infinite detailed extent

like God’s attention. Where nothing is diminished by perspective.

It’s interesting the way artists put themselves in God’s shoes. For example, here’s one impressionistic flash from Adelaide Writer’s Week which took place simultaneous with Brassland’s program at Adelaide Festival. Coetzee now resides in Adelaide. He relocated there in 2002, just after retiring from his university position in South Africa, and just before winning the Nobel prize. Yet he seems, at best, a phantom presence.

For example, something of a recluse, Coetzee declined to appear in support of his new novel which has something to do with Jesus Christ. (Guilty as charged: I have not read it…yet.) He did, however, supply the festival with 75 signed copies of his book, a number of which remained unsold at the festival’s conclusion Thursday night. (Evidence pictured above.)

I’m a fan of Coetzee — especially his memoirs — and while the chilly nature of his prose is one of its appeals — his distance — I could not help but see a bit of comedy (unselfconscious self-parody?) in this gesture and in this state of affairs: a pile of unsold author signed copies on a work about Jesus. I may be giving undue credit for the good humor of the work itself. For example, in a summary of the book from Wikipedia:

The Childhood of Jesus, as its title was later revealed to be, was released March 2013, and concerning the early life of Jesus, particularly his struggles to free himself from the iron-fisted discipline of his long-suffering parents, get the girl, earn a decent wage, and find his place in an unforgiving world.

“Get the girl”?

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2 March 2013

Four images about desire in the southern hemisphere

Small girl. Giant, hopping rat with pouch.

The 1% can now indulge in dolphin fucking on their high-priced sex tourism jaunts.

People are really fixated on North America.

Possible destination.

PS – Yes, I realize Dubai is not in the southern hemisphere.

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24 January 2013

The Community Function, the Italian Renaissance, Paul Graham’s essays & the impossibility of doing it alone

That is a photo I took on a trip to Italy this past December. While I haven’t traveled widely there, it’s a place that recalls other cities trapped in amber historically and creatively. Like Paris, like Bruges as depicted in the film In Bruges(Acknowledgement: this impression of Italy is mostly hearsay, inspired less from lived experience than from movies and television shows and people ranting about how good the pizza is in Naples. My recent trip touched down in Siena, Florence, Pisa and the Tuscan countryside — not Rome or Milan, cities which I suspect may provide a very different impression of the country.)

Anyhoo, that picture depicts the amber trap. Here’s another snap of a poster I found near the bathroom of a Sienese museum devoted to the city’s history.

While, at first glance, it might seem to disprove my thesis — how modern! marionettes & dildos! — I ask that you consider this picture more deeply: where else on earth could such a poster exist but in a country in denial about a modern consciousness rife as it is with irony, sarcasm, parody, self-parody, all the rest of it.

Moving on — don’t worry, I’ll loop back! — here’s another thing I don’t know all that much about: contemporary essayists. Of the ones I do know, internet entrepreneur, computer programmer and writer Paul Graham strikes me as one of the best, and certainly the one I read with the most unalloyed pleasure. (He inspires the kind of satisfaction one might experience if presented with an intractable lock, then provided a shoebox full of keys to sort through, and then, upon first attempt to match them, you heard that magic click.)

I can explain to you why I like Paul Graham via close reading, but maybe it’s better and easier to show you this diagram grabbed from Wikipedia which someone came up with to illustrate Graham’s essay How to Disagree.

Writing as as someone who has been accused of being, erm…HARSH…at times, it’s the kind of essay (and diagram) which I think anyone could learn something from. But so could all of us. Here is the lovely opening paragraph of Graham’s essay:

The web is turning writing into a conversation. Twenty years ago, writers wrote and readers read. The web lets readers respond, and increasingly they do—in comment threads, on forums, and in their own blog posts.

Essentially, the essay is a guide to navigating conflict and communication in the electronic age. It’s this simple dissembling of emergent manners & business which Graham excels at. He observes, acknowledges, and even offers an implicit titter of respect for the level of popular discourse in our culture — while also trying to elevate said culture. (By the way, if you were wondering, the term “asshat” does not appear in Graham’s original essay, but the phrase “u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!” most certainly does. He isn’t just pointing out the existence of name calling — he shows that he has a personal fluency in txtspk and comment section style.)

Too many folks that call themselves essayists place themselves on high, away from the actual scrum of culture, or so far from it their attempts at engaging fail miserably. (A similar ability to discuss and respect the “low,” while aspiring to the “high” is what makes folks like David Foster WallaceDave Hickey, and John Jeremiah Sullivan some of my other favorite essay writers.)
In any case, to tie tight the two strands of this blog post together, my recent visit to Italy got me thinking a bit about one essay of Graham’s, which provides his take on the amber trapped era Italians look back upon with such justifiable pride.

Good design happens in chunks. The inhabitants of fifteenth century Florence included Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Verrocchio, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. Milan at the time was as big as Florence. How many fifteenth century Milanese artists can you name?

Something was happening in Florence in the fifteenth century. And it can’t have been genetic, because it isn’t happening now. You have to assume that whatever inborn ability Leonardo and Michelangelo had, there were people born in Milan with just as much. What happened to the Milanese Leonardo?

There are roughly a thousand times as many people alive in the US right now as lived in Florence during the fifteenth century. A thousand Leonardos and a thousand Michelangelos walk among us. If DNA ruled, we should be greeted daily by artistic marvels. We aren’t, and the reason is that to make Leonardo you need more than his innate ability. You also need Florence in 1450.

Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems. Genes count for little by comparison: being a genetic Leonardo was not enough to compensate for having been born near Milan instead of Florence. Today we move around more, but great work still comes disproportionally from a few hotspots: the Bauhaus, the Manhattan Project, The New Yorker, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Xerox Parc.

At any given time there are a few hot topics and a few groups doing great work on them, and it’s nearly impossible to do good work yourself if you’re too far removed from one of these centers. You can push or pull these trends to some extent, but you can’t break away from them. (Maybe you can, but the Milanese Leonardo couldn’t.)

This also made me wonder about ambition vs. skill vs. luck as it plays out among the scene I find myself part of, the certainly more modest achievements of the Brooklyn, New York art scene — filled as it is with musicians, graphic designers and artisanal chocolate makers. However, self-consciousness befits an essayist more than it does a cultural producer, so for now I’ll hang up my flannel on that question, and relive a moment of staring out over the crete senesi.


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16 January 2013

(Mis)communication in the digital age

This past autumn I went to Asia for the first time in over a decade. I saw the region with adult eyes. I Skyped a fair bit. I got gently lost. Words failed.

In the wake of the trip, I’ve occasionally found myself having strange dreams which seem to tie in. I dreamed of setting myself on fire in old age — to protest against something rather than accept death. Or perhaps he was embracing death? Or perhaps it’s just the ultimate example of a moment when you can smell your own human smell…

Life is lived on many layers now. Sights, thoughts. We’re no longer guided by smells. For any of us engaged in social media, computing, media creation, the Arts, et cetera there is a curtain of data floats which over reality. A scrim. This idea is rendered fictionally by The Matrix and made tangible by Google Glass. Some of us will login and, at first at least, many many more will choose not to.

Here is a whimsical selection of pictures about all that.

Read more »

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