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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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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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A short talk on sound props for the School of Visual Arts MFA in Products of Design

October 26, 2012 - 10:00 am to 11:00 am - 10:00 am to 11:00 am

This Friday I’m giving a short talk to my friend Emilie Baltz‘s class at the School of Visual Arts. The students are studying for their Masters of Fine Arts in Products of Design. It’s a small class, but if you’re interested in coming by, I’m told I can invite guests.

She asked me to discuss the use of props in music, specifically mentioning the idea of megaphones. I have departed somewhat from this idea, and will be doing a short, improvised, visually-driven talk called Enter the Horn: megaphones, sound props & striking a balance between irony, authenticity and futurism.

Among the topics being discussed are Judaism’s use of the ram’s horn shofar — Italian futurism — Edison’s invention of the phonograph — circular breathing sax player Colin Stetson – Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue — the instantly anachronistic gold record that Carl Sagan curated for the Voyager spaceship — Andrew Bird’s spinning horn — the amplifiers of the band Shellac — German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten — Buke & Gase’s handmade instruments — novelty iPhone speakers — composer Tristan Perich — comedian Reggie Watts — and the performance art band People Get Ready.

Hopefully it won’t be too pretentious. There’ll be a lot of JPEGs and YouTube clips.

Traditional Horns


Futurist Horns

“Authentic” Horns

Postmodern Horns aka “Beyond the Horn”

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21 September 2012

Billy Corgan on the Community Function

May I grab a moment of your increasingly internet-fractured attention span and focus you on this interview between T. Cole Rachel and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan on, ahem, the “state of the Alternative Community” — communities being something I care about a great deal.

Here it is thanks to Stereogum. (Thanks Stereogum!)

Here is an excerpt I particularly like, and bold-face on the parts I really really like:

“Once I entered the world of honesty, circa 1992, there was sort of no going back. It’s a nice fantasy to think if someone got me some media training, I would have avoided a lot of these controversies that are really meaningless and continue to be meaningless. Secondarily, I think there’s something to be said for being principled. Like I think of Lou Reed as being principled. I think of Neil Young as being principled. There are those actors in the world for whom the principles they live their life by, in the long run, mean something. And I think that the principles that I live my life by do mean something and will look better in hindsight. Because when I was at South By Southwest … first of all, in alternative rock music, generally speaking, there have been very few bands in the past 10 years that have made OK Computer-level records. I guess you could say Arcade Fire made one, but there’s been a real scarcity in great, A-level work that crosses over into the mainstream. That’s very interesting, because I don’t think it’s a lack of talent. And if anything, you could say that technology should afford the ability to make ideal records even more easily than we used to be able to make when we had to do it all on tape. Secondarily, the main alternative voice for at least seven years now, and you could argue possibly longer, has been Pitchfork. And they have not produced the level of movement commensurate to their power. So what does that say to me? That system doesn’t work. Now it might work for the kids down in Wicker Park or Echo Park. It might work for the guy with the handlebar mustache. But it doesn’t work overall in the way that the Stooges work, the way that the Velvet Underground worked, or the Cure worked, or Depeche Mode, or pick your fucking any band that made it across the divide from being underground to being iconic. Read more »

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