Aaron Swartz was a young hacktivist, who is popular for co-creating RSS, Reddit, CC license. On the activism side, he played a major role in preventing the Online Privacy act through SOPA. I have just mentioned the key points, to really know and understand Aaron’s Legacy, I highly recommend you to watch this documentary - The Internet’s own Child: The Story of Aaron Swartz. Aaron used to blog regularly on his site. Many of his blogs have been collected in a book by name - The Boy who could change the World .Not a Modest title, but for a great thinker like Aaron, the title seems nothing wrong. The book has categorised Aaron’s blogs into the categories - Free Culture, Computers, Politics, Media, Books & Culture, Unschool. (I have read the blogs from all categories except Politics and Media)

The thing that amazes me is the things that Aaron thought and blogged about when he was so young. Such ideas can’t even be captured by the majority of us through out our live span. Yet Aaron was able to write about them openly, with a great clarity at a very young age.

What’s in this blog

In this blog, I summarised some of his blogs I read. Because I felt these were important enough to revisit(and also I wanted to practice some writing). In the summaries here, I have included only the important points and the big picture without getting into the details. If you find the summary interesting and wish to learn the details, you can click on the title and read the full original blog on Aaron’s website. In Aaron’s blogs, one can find some amazing lines, written very cleverly. At such places, I have quoted the original words in block-quote and sometimes italic.

Recommendations

Since, there are too many blogs, and not everyone might be interested in reading all of them. Here are some of the recommendations based on interests

Counterpoint: Downloading Isn’t Stealing (Age-17)

Stealing is wrong. But downloading isn’t stealing. If I shoplift an album from my local record store, no one else can buy it. But when I download a song, no one loses it and another person gets it. There’s no ethical problem.

Downloading may be illegal. But 60 million people used Napster and only 50 million voted for Bush or Gore. We live in a democracy. If the people want to share files then the law should be changed to let them.

UTI Interview with Aaron Swartz (Age-17)

(I have put only few questions)

Q: Hey. Who are you?

Aaron:

  • Well, I’m trying to figure that out myself, actually. Broadly, though, I’m a teenage kid who’s interested in improving the world (mostly through law, politics, and technology).

  • This year, I’m going to try to update my weblog daily with interesting thoughts, program some interesting new website software, and work on some website projects that help people better understand what’s going on in American politics

Q: Some people don’t take you seriously because you’re a lot younger than them. What do you think causes this?

Aaron:

  • I think there are several reasons. First, people generalize: “Well, most kids I’ve met are pretty dumb, this guy’s a kid, so he’s probably pretty dumb too.”
  • …one of the things about kids is that they don’t really know a lot of what you can’t say. So when kids say perfectly reasonable things that you’re not really supposed to say, they just write it off as “Kids say the darnedest things!” and “He just doesn’t know better.”
  • Internet is how it’s helped me overcome a lot of these things—first, because your age isn’t immediately obvious every time you speak (as it is when someone looks at you), and second, because geeks seem a lot more willing to treat people based on what they can do rather than who they are.

Q: One thing I’ve noticed while using open-source software or other free software is that it usually tends to have a very poor user interface. Since these guys are all out to beat Microsoft and other “bigco”s in their own game, why is no or little attention paid to the most important part of the software, the UI? UI designing standards are standards just as the other standards they embrace, right? Or is it all just laziness; to make the product work is enough?

Aaron:

  • Well, for most of these programmers UI is hard, because they don’t understand it. They see things textually, not visually
  • The free software culture comes very much from the Unix culture, and Unix is very much expert-oriented. Experts don’t need “good UI”—they know exactly what to do already and they just want to be able to do it as fast as they can.
  • This is related to the other problem, which is that free software programmers code mostly for themselves. And since they completely and intuitively understand the software, it doesn’t seem like the UI is bad to them—to them, it makes perfect sense

Q: What would you like to say to all the people out there?

Aaron: Think deeply about things. Don’t just go along because that’s the way things are or that’s what your friends say. Consider the effects, consider the alternatives, but most importantly, just think.

(I have chosen very few questions here, there are many more on the original resource)

Jefferson: Nature Wants Information to Be Free (Age-17)

Since many have said that my view of copyright and patent law is childish and held merely because I grew up with Napster and do not write for a living, I thought I’d investigate some more respectable views on the subject

  • Judging from his letter to Isaac McPherson, Jefferson’s thoughts are thus:

    No one seriously disputes that property is a good idea, but it’s bizarre to suggest that ideas should be property. Nature clearly wants ideas to be free! While you can keep an idea to yourself, as soon as you share it anyone can have it. And once they do, it’s difficult for them to get rid of it, even if they wanted to. Like air, ideas are incapable of being locked up and hoarded.
      
    And no matter how many people share it, the idea is not diminished. When I hear your idea, I gain knowledge without diminishing anything of yours. In the same way, if you use your candle to light mine, I get light without darkening you. Like fire, ideas can encompass the globe without lessening their density.
      
    Thus, inventions cannot be property. Sure, we can give inventors an exclusive right to profit, perhaps to encourage them to invent new useful things, but this is our choice. If we decide not to, nobody can object.
    

    (I am not directly quoting Jefferson here, I am translating what he said to modern English and omitting a bit, but I have not put any words in his mouth—Jefferson said all these things.)

  • The first thing to note is that Jefferson may have been the first to say, in essence, “Information wants to be free!” (Jefferson attributed this will to nature, not information, but the sentiment was the same.) Thus, all those people who dismiss this claim as absurd have some explaining to do.

Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves

Most of the world’s scientific and cultural knowledge is digitally locked by greedy private organisations in form of books and journals. The scientific research is mostly funded by the tax payers. And yet if ordinary tax payers wants to read a journal(which is outcome of the research they have funded), they are asked to pay for it. Only people at top universities are privileged to get access to these journals. This is unacceptable and there is a need to fight back.

So, people who have the priviledge to these journals have the moral duty to make the documents openly available to everyone. This is not a crime or immoral …

It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private heft of public culture.

With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

The Fruits of Mass Collaboration (Age-19)

The world needs to be more organised. There are several good TV show reviews, introductory subject guides. But they are found only by chance. There is a need for way to organize such large amount of information. This seems impractical, but projects like Dictionary and Encyclopedia have shown that it is possible.

While such projects required subjects experts to be gathered at one place along with funding, in the current era with the Internet one can avoid that. Wikipedia is the best example, written by random people but not subject experts

Another example is Napster. Within months, there was a nearly complete music library. The contributors to this project didn’t even realize they were doing this! They all thought they were simply grabbing music for their own personal use. Yet the outcome far surpassed anything consciously attempted.

The Internet fundamentally changes the practicalities of large organization projects. Things that previously seemed silly and impossible, like building a detailed guide to every television show, are now being done as a matter of course. It seems like we’re in for an explosion of such modern reference works, perhaps with new experiments into tools for making them.

The Techniques of Mass Collaboration: A Third Way Out (Age-19)

In this blog, an interesting debate between Tim Berners Lee(Founder of Web) and Peter Norvig(from Google) is mentioned, it is called the Million Dollar Code vs Million Dollar Markup, name coined by Mark Pilgirm. Tim Lee argued that through Semantic web, that means by websites providing more meta data in a more sophisticated manner(using RDFs), we can make machines understand the documents easily. But Peter’s argument was the users will inevitably create a mess while publishing any documents, and it is the job of machines via complicated code(million dollar code) to search through the mess.

(It is interesting that in today’s world, Million dollar code has been a huge success and Million Dollar Markup isn’t so widely a popular idea)

Aaron argues that there is another way - Million Dollar users. One like Wikipedia, where one specifies the format in which users can put the data is a specific format , and later users can work together to resolve the conflicts.

Time has published the roadmap for Semantic web in 1998, but things didn’t go/are not going as planned.

Wikimedia at the Crossroads (Age-19)

In 2006, when Aaron visited the international Wikimedia conference, he was unhappy with the way how the way work was going on at site administrators. They were mostly absorbed by issues of the present than thinking about grander visions.

second group[site administrators] was almost the opposite of the first[volunteer crew of hackers]. With a few notable exceptions, when they were off-stage they talked gossip and details: how do we make the code stop doing this, how do we get people to stop complaining about that, how can we get this other group to like us more

So, after consideration he decided to run for a seat on Wikimedia Foundation’s Board. In the following series of blogs, he writes about wikipedia and talks about some deep issues. The blogs are really thought provoking, and give an insight about how and why actually wikipedia is a huge success. But the sad part of the story is Aaron lost the election. This was mostly because of the internal politics, more on this in the later sections.

Who Writes Wikipedia

Jimbo Wales, the face of Wikipedia, claimed that most of the wikipedia was written by a regular group of users(around 500) and it mostly follows the 80-20 rule: 80% of the work is done by 20% of the users. He made this claim at many talks. To support his statement, he counted the number of edits and found it was tighter than the 80-20 ratio,

it turns out over 50% of all the edits are done by just .7% of the users … 524 people. … And in fact the most active 2%, which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits.” The remaining 25% of edits, he said, were from “people who [are] contributing … a minor change of a fact or a minor spelling fix … or something like that.”

This was a shocking truth because Wikipedia is largely believed to be as the success of large diverse community present all over the world. But the fact that wikipedia is written by group of 1000 people makes a difference, not only for the public but also for the people who run wikipedia. It is an important to keep in mind while making policies on to whose voice they should hear.

Many, including Aaron were skeptical about this and Aaron decided to do his research. Aaron took random articles, and instead of counting the number of edits, he checked the amount of letters that were contributed by each user. It turned out that though the large number of edits were made regularly by a regular set of people, the actual bulk of the content was contributed by users who didn’t even have an account. Though they had made less edits, it is these users, who wrote the actual content.

But when you count letters, the picture dramatically changes: few of the contributors (2 out of the top 10) are even registered and most (6 out of the top 10) have made less than 25 edits to the entire site. In fact, #9 has made exactly one edit — this one!

Another such example

the largest portion of the Anaconda article was written by a user who only made 2 edits to it (and only 100 on the entire site). By contrast, the largest number of edits were made by a user who appears to have contributed no text to the final article (the edits were all deleting things and moving things around).

To summarise, outsiders make an edit to add large chunk of information, which he or she knows well. And later insiders, who are well aware of syntax and policies of wiki make several minor edits formatting the article like changing the category name. The idea that Whales had, is similar to the Britannica Encylopedia is run by formatters, not contributors. Aaron writes

Even if all the formatters quit the project tomorrow, Wikipedia would still be immensely valuable. For the most part, people read Wikipedia because it has the information they need….

……The formatters aid the contributors, not the other way around.

(This blog by Aaron proves the fact that wikipedia is a massive success because of its large community, and its model is different from any other corporate company, where a set of people are paid to do their job. Wikipedia is successful because people contribute information because they feel it is important.

Sadly, this blog had a slight negative impact on Aaron’s votes. The majority of the people who vote are the insiders. And the outsiders, who contribute to the articles, either don’t have an account or are not eligible to vote, due to their fewer edit counts. Nevertheless, Aaron writing the truth despite keeping all of it in mind is really inspiring!)

Who runs Wikipedia

When Aaron spoke about adding some new features to Wikipedia in a conference, the audience, who were mostly hackers were skeptical about it and began suggesting that users won’t do this and bad things might happen. And Aaron’s reply was an interesting one…

I had come here five years ago and told you I was going to make an entire encyclopedia by putting up a bunch of web pages that anyone could edit, you would have been able to raise a thousand objections: It will get filled with vandalism! The content will be unreliable! No one will do that work for free!

And you would have been right to. These were completely reasonable expectations at the time. But here’s the funny thing: it worked anyway.

Source of Wikipedia’s success is the community’s volunteerism. When wiki articles are vandalised, the malicious edits are undone is seconds, because a voluntary group of people care enough about the site to feel responsible for it, they get upset when someone messes up the site.

Wikipedia’s problems have arised when specific people are given specific powers. Aaron writes

Wikipedia’s biggest problems have come when it’s strayed from this path, when it’s given some people official titles and specified tasks. Whenever that happens, real work slows down and squabbling speeds up…

The more frightening problem is that people love to get power and hate to give it up. Especially with a project as big and important as Wikipedia, with the constant swarm of praise and attention, it takes tremendous strength to turn down the opportunity to be its official X, to say instead “it’s a community project, I’m just another community member”

The sad part about it is, people who have devoted time to the project, expect something in return. And so, the trend is clear: more power, more people, more problems. It’s not just a series of mistakes, it’s the tendency of the system.

Just as Wikipedia’s success as an encyclopedia requires a world of volunteers to write it, Wikipedia’s success as an organization requires the community of volunteers to run it. On the one hand, this means opening up the Board’s inner workings for the community to see and get involved in. But it also means opening up the actions of the community so the wider world can get involved. Whoever wins this next election, I hope we all take on this task.

Making more Wikipedians

Wikipedia was recognized by 10% of Americans. What about the rest 90%? Does Wikipedia need more marketing? This is silly. Wikipedia’s users have diverse background, It is the users who can promote Wikipedia with people, who have common interests. Aaron writes…

Wikipedia’s users come from all over society: different cultures, different countries, different places, different fields of study. The physics grad students who contribute heavily to physics articles are in a much better position to promote it to physicists than a promotional flack from the head office. The Pokemon fan maintaining the Pokemon articles probably knows how to reach other Pokemaniacs than any marketing expert.

But there are other difficulties. Sometimes, users who sincerely contribute to an article, get their changes undone by someone else. This really pisses off individual who spend their time and effort. Another problem - it has become difficult for users to make an edit on wiki page. In fact, Richard Stallman, once himself complained that in a conference that it would take him an enormous time to fix an error he noted and word would probably just get reverted.

The problem of users having a difficult time to edit is not just solved by new clearer interface. But also has to involve the community by giving talks, demos and tutorial. Aaron writes “The best interface in the world is no substitute for real instruction and even the clearest document explaining our principles will be ignored in a way that a personal presentation won’t”.

There is a need for enforcing policies which prevent turning valuable newcomers away and educate them, instead of alientating them. There can be some sort of Complaint system, where people like Stallman can file their complaints and keep track of it. Aaron ends the blog with…

This is just one idea, of course, but it’s an example of the kinds of things we need to think about. Wikipedia is visited by millions each day; how do get them to contribute back their thoughts on the article instead of muttering them under their breath or airing them to their friends?

Making more Wikipedias

What made Wikipedia work? The question hasn’t got enough attention it deserves. Tech Industry reduces websites to their technology like for them Wikipedia is an instance of wiki software, Reddit is a voting platform. Building a successful community like Wikipedia is tough, it requires the right combination of technology, rules and people.

Collaborative work is not a new thing. Books have been co-authored but generally by a small number of people. People have written encyclopedias, but it was only a by a set of people, who were assigned tasks specifically. People have collaborated online but generally to discuss a specific topic or writing specifications on forums, IRCs or mailing lists. But in the case of Wikipedia, people have come together to build Wikipedia. It is a community setup to make itself. There are a lot of things unknown to us about such kind of collaboration.

Wikipedia’s innovation comes from radical collaboration. Instead of small people working together, the entire world was invited to take part. Instead of assigning tasks, it let anyone work on anything they wanted. Instead of assigning someone in charge, it let people to sort things for themselves. Yet, all this was towards making a very specific product. Wikipedia’s success can’t be extended by simply installing more copies of wiki software!

Aaron points out that it is an important questions to think about - What key principles led to radical collaboration? And further, we need to figure out what sorts of projects, is this good for? What rules need to be put? What kind of software needs to be used?

These questions can’t be answered from the armchair, of course. They require experimentation and study. And that, in turn, requires building a community around strong collaboration itself. It doesn’t help us much if each person goes off and tries to start a wiki on their own. To learn what works and what doesn’t, we need to share our experiences and be willing to test new things — new goals, new social structures, new software.

Code, and Other Laws of Wikipedia

“Code is Law”, Lawrence Lessig famously said. Software regulates one’s behaviour online just like formal law regulates one’s behaviour in public. In fact software’s regulation is more effective. If a software prevents user on typing some word then it is more effective than any law brought to regulate speech.

There was a presentation in a conference, on usability of Wikipedia. After the talk, there was a debate among programmers over topics like should Wikipedia be easy enough to use, should confused users be allowed to add their content anyway only to be later corrected by more experienced, should confused users really be allowed to edit software. Though programmers have the expertise to build software, should they be making such choices? Though these choices are technical ones, they have political effects, and hence requires involvement of larger community of people in making any such decisions.

The Wikipedia community is enormously vibrant and I have no doubt that the site will manage to survive many software changes. But if we’re concerned about more than mere survival, about how to make Wikipedia the best that it can be, we need to start thinking about software design as much as we think about the rest of our policy choices

(The Dandy Warhols) Come Down

In this blog, Aaron expresses his grief on the events he learnt about after the Wikipedia Foundation Board election was over. Though, the results were not yet out Aaron knew he would probably loose. And he did end up at 6th position. But the election was held only for 1 seat. But the reasons to why Aaron had lost, after I read caused a mixed emotion of anger and sadness. But reality is often not fair!

  • Aaron’s honest analysis that Wikipedia is largely built by contributors not by a small set of regular insiders. But it is actually these insiders who would vote in election.

    Many wags have commented on how my campaign was almost destined to lose: I argued that the hard-core Wikipedia contributors weren’t very important, but those were precisely the people who could vote for me — in other words, I alienated my only constituency.

  • Jimbo Whales, email to Wikipedia community telling whom they should vote for.

    I personally strongly strongly support the candidacies of Oscar and Mindspillage.

    […]

    There are other candidates, some good, but at least some of them are entirely unacceptable because they have proven themselves repeatedly unable to work well with the community.

    Aaron writes that

For those reading the tea leaves, this suggests that the results will be something like: Eloquence, Oscar, Mindspillage. But we’ll see.

And this really happened. Eloquence won the majority of votes, followed by Mindspillage and Oscar.

(An another interesting, which I found while reading about the election on the web was the election winner Eloquence’s candidate statement which can be found here . In the end he wrote

If you don’t want to vote for me, please consider voting for Arnomane, AaronSw (yes, he’s young, but very clever), Mindspillage, or UninvitedCompany. Note that you can vote for multiple candidates, though only one seat is open for election

Aaron was well recognized well recognized, despite of his very young age(19))

The blog ends with words, which were really heartbreaking to read. One could feel the disappointment, frustration. Aaron was someone who truly understood Wikipedia and this fact clear to anyone who read this blogs, I truly wished he had won the election.

The let-down after the election is probably not the best time to make plans but, if I had to, I’d probably decide to stay out of Wikipedia business for a while. It’s a great and important project, but not the one for me.

Up With Facts: Finding the Truth in WikiCourt (Age-17)

Aaron presents the idea of WikiCourt, a platform inspired by style of Wikipedia to come to an objective conclusion on popular controversial statements like “Gore invented the Internet”.

First, large claims like “Gore is a serial liar” needs to be broken into precise small statements “Gore claims to have invented the internet”. Then the next step would be to collect the records and put them on a public website. The records can be video tape from CNN in which Gore made the statement, records about Gore’s funding of the Arpanet, testimonials from pieces involved. If someone had challenged any piece of evidence, a mini process can be started to resolve it.

The next step would be that in a wiki page, people from each side of the debate would put their arguments with their evidence. And this would continue till the best arguments are put.

Final phase, the hardest phase, a group of people from different sides of political spectrum would look at the arguments and evidences and come to a decision mostly unanimous, for example “While Gore’s phrasing was a little misleading, it is clear Gore was claiming to have led the fight for providing funding for research that was later developed into the Internet — a claim that is mostly true. Gore was one of the research’s major backers, although others were involved.

This seems like a awful lot of effort, but in the end there would be a collection of trustable arguments for the many of the controversial topics. The collection could be relied upon in future, as Aaron concludes…

The result would be a vast collection of trustable arguments for many of the hot-topics of the day, a collection that could be relied on through time to give you the fair truth — because everybody had essentially signed off on it (it is publicly-modifiable, after all) And if you look at the effort expended on these claims and political fights, spending a little time getting the facts right seems like a small price to pay.

Computers

Postel’s Law Has No Exceptions (Age-16)

Postel’s law is quoted as “be conservative in what you put out, but be liberal in what you accept”. The message that the law conveys is that interoperability is a primary concern, and that programs should accept things even if they are against spec for achieving interoperability.

An example of it is, HTML. Though there might be many bugs in an HTML code, the browser never breaks, and browsers make the sense of it. This is an example of Browsers following Postel’s law. XML developers decided to fix this, but this never happened, because

  • The data on the document is not necessarily fixed. If one day, someone happens to add a small piece of data to the document that has XML’s exceptions then the whole document would die. For example, AT&T should be written as AT&T in XML spec. Such imperceptible errors can cause a great damage to the site.
  • XML apps compete for users. Users may want to read the document inspite a part of it being broken. But if a complete document breaks down, that would be a huge inconvenience for the users.

This doesn’t mean programs should have to process invalid documents or work hard to guess what the author meant. But things that lead to cause inconvenience on the user’s side shouldn’t be implemented. Mark Pilgrim was right in saying “Postel’s law has no exceptions”

Squaring the Triangle: Secure, Decentralized, Human-Readable Names

Zooko’s triangle is trilemma for names in Network Protochol like DNS. It states that a naming system can have at most only 2 of the properties(here DNS example is considered)

  • Human readable: Not a random string of letters
  • Secure: When your domain name is queried, it actually returns your website
  • Decentralized: No central authority controls the names.

Aaron describes a way to have all the three in a system, based on ideas of Bitcoin. This idea has also been implemented by Twister, a p2p micro-blogging platform.

Lets there be a document called Scroll. Scroll contains a series of lines, where each line is a tuple (name, key, nonce). The nonce is a number such that hash of all the data in the scroll above the line have first N bits zero. So, if someone wants to add a new line, they have to calculate the nonce for the new line.

To find a name, ask everyone who has the scroll and accept the result from one having longest scroll. To publish a new line, you calculate the nonce and broadcast the line to everyone you know.

In this system, how do you steal a name? To replace the line, you now have to calculate a new nonce for the line you want to steal and nonce for all the lines after your line. So, if want to steal a line long ago in the scroll, that would require a lot of compute power. Also in the time you have calculated the original scroll would have grown longer, and your scroll would be invalid.

To join the network, one has to know at least one machine containing the scroll. Now, this is vulnerable if the one machine you know is an imposter, you get the wrong scroll. An another option can be, you ask a bunch of machines and keep the scroll that majority give you. Again you are in a vulnerable position, if majority of the nodes are under the control of imposter.

Publishing a false scroll results in separation of network. For a machine to publish a scroll, we can ask it to sign it along with the scroll. If the same signature is found on 2 contradicting scrolls, the machine can be rejected from the network.

So, now the names can be human readable, secure provided the majority nodes in the network are honest and its decentralized!

A Non-Programmer’s Apology (Age-19)

Aaron in this blog, expresses his desire to shift from programming to activism. A couple of years before he was inspired by Noam Chomsky’s ideas on media and politics, through the book Understanding Power and documentary Manufacturing consent.. According to Aaron, Chomsky’s Understanding Power book changed his life*.

Aaron interestingly mentions Hardy’s words from Mathematician’s Apology…

A man who sets out to justify his existence and his activities has only one real defense, namely that “I do what I do because it is the one and only thing that I can do at all well. I am not suggesting that this is a defence which can be made by most people, since most people can do nothing at all well. But it is impregnable when it can be made without absurdity … If a man has any genuine talent he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full.

Aaron has been a programmer since a very young age and helped co-found Reddit, RSS and many other websites. But Aaron’s interests slowly changed as he tried to understand the ways of the world. Aaron was deeply shocked on learning the fact that the world doesn’t work he actually thought. Aaron writes in thoughts in another blog….

Reading the book, I felt as if my mind was rocked by explosions. At times the ideas were too much that I literally had to lie down…..I remember vividly clutching at the door to my room, trying to hold on to something while the world spun around.

Aaron had realized that programming was not he wanted to do his life, though he was very good at it and had great success in the field. He felt that the only way to live his life responsibly was to do something with the truth he had learnt - to explain it to others or do something about it. Hence, in the later years, he deeply became interested in Activism and wrote several blogs on his understanding of politics and Media.

Aaron wrote this blog as an “apology” to conclude that though he has been a very good programmer and a mediocre writer. He wants to continue with writing, as writing is too important!

Perhaps, I fear, this decision deprives society of one great programmer in favor of one mediocre writer. And let’s not hide behind the cloak of uncertainty, let’s say we know that it does. Even so, I would make it. The writing is too important, the programming too unenjoyable.

On Intellectual Dishonesty (Age-24)

Dishonesty can be of two kinds

  • Saying something untrue
  • Saying with an intent to mislead

There is a different kind called intellectual dishonesty is where you try to convince people that your work is right, though you are fully not convinced. For example, you might do an experiment several times except a time and you are not sure what went wrong(the reasons may be unknown to you). Put publishing that your experiment gives correct result every time is a sign of intellectual dishonesty.

Science requires a lot of intellectual honesty because it makes claim to posterity. Hence it is asked to show your work in advance, so that others can see if you are missing something.

intellectual honesty requires bending-over-backwards to provide any evidence that you might be wrong, even if you’re convinced that you are right.

A Unified Theory of Magazines (Age-19)

Successful websites like Reddit, Wikipedia are successful because they are not just interactive pages, they are communities. They allow groups groups of like-minded people to congregate and do things. But magazines are different.

Magazines export communities to the readers. Instead of like minded people coming together, it provides the feeling of being part of community by reading the ideas. Scientific magazines export the culture of science, so that people can get a piece of the lab coat life.

Run down the list and in pretty much every case you scratch a magazine, you find an exported community. Magazines that want to succeed will have to find one of their own.

The Smalltalk Question (Age-19)

When you meet someone in a party, with what question do you start your conversation with?

  • “How ya doin’?” - its just a mere formality
  • “What do you do?” - seems like you are more interested in occupation of the person, might be annoying
  • “Where are you from?” - less fruitful
  • “What’s your major?” - even if its a college student, many college students have no passion in their major
  • “What book have you read recently?” - not everyone reads!
  • “What’s something cool you’ve learned recently?” - might be difficult question to answer and may lead to hemming and hawing

So, Aaron proposes that the best question to ask would be “What have you been thinking about lately?” because

  • Its open ended, it can be about a book, their job and anything they are excited about
  • It sends a message that thinking about thinking is a fundamental human activity
  • Easier to answer, no pressure on the person
  • Thoughts are endlessly varied and can capture person’s essence

“What have you been working on lately?” can be seen, in this context, to be clearly inferior, although similar.

So, what have you been thinking about lately?

School - Given as lecture at Harvard (Age-24)

Schools instil fear and kill curiosity :

Babies when given a toy, play with it, try to understand how it works. Children love to explore curiosity. They love to figure out things themselves by experimenting. They keep regularly asking their parents the question “why”. But as soon as kids start their schooling, the atmosphere is completely different. They are asked to follow the teacher blindly. Learning via experiment and experience is gone.

The worst part is school instil fear in students. A radical educator named John Holt once asked a class of students what goes through their mind, when the teacher asks them a question. After a long silence, a bold kid replied that they would mostly fear they wouldn’t know the answer. They were afraid of failing, being called stupid by the rest of the class. The problem with fear is, it makes you dumb. As Aaron writes…

Your field of vision literally narrows, you start thinking desperately about the problem at hand—not what you know or what it means, but just whatever you need to say to escape the moment safely….

…there’s no time to try to understand what they’re really saying or how it fits into some bigger picture. It’s not the time to get clarification on some point that’s confused you.

As a result, students dSuch drills don’t teach children anything about the world, but it does teach them “skills”—skills like how to follow senseless orders and sit at your desk for hours at a timeevelop strategies to escape from the moment like mumbling with a hope that teacher hears what they want to hear, make statements to cover all possibilities, try figuring out clues from teacher’s body language. This is not about learning, this is about survival.

Schools forget to teach the basics:

Eric Mazur, a professor at Harvard University once wanted to test student’s understanding of the basics, they had learnt in their previous years. So he posted 2 kinds of question on electricity in the exam. The first one was a numerical problem, not a direct one though, which required basic Algebra and knowing some basic laws.

The numeric question

And while the second one was a conceptual question, didn’t contain any numbers, but the question was posed to test the basic understanding of current flow in the different circuits.

basic question

But outcome was shocking

  • Some regarded the conceptual question as the hardest question
  • Some said they didn’t know how to get started
  • Some had written 6 pages, hoping that the right answer would be covered somewhere.

Eric was shocked to see that many have aced the traditional question, but flunked the basic conceptual one. But there was no one, who did the reverse.

The same is the case in other fields too. In case of biology

Even students who have studied biology for years continue to think that characteristics an animal acquires in one generation can be passed down to its children (like the giraffe who stretches its neck further to reach more distant food)

In case of literature

As Richards wrote, “They fail to make out its sense, its plain, overt meaning, as a set of ordinary intelligible English sentences, taken quite apart from any poetic significance.”

Aaron provides similar examples from Mathematics, Computer Science and economics students failing to have a proper understanding of the basics in their fields.

Schooling as a method to control rather teach:

In mills of Lowell, many young girls used to work in mills. The girls had to work for 14 hours under harsh working conditions. Though their work was dull, they had plenty of time in hand. Despite having no formal education, the girls read books regularly. They used to attend lectures every winter at a near lecture hall. One of the lectures mentioned that nearly 80% of the hall was filled with these factory girls and they used to take notes diligently.

In 1836, when mill owners decided to cut the girl’s pay. As a response to that girls had organized a walk out. They also organized strikes and made their voice heard in the public

They organized their own newspaper, the Voice of Industry, which they wrote, edited, printed, and sold themselves…. But their writing in the Voice shows that they wanted much more than simply better working conditions. They saw themselves as slaves—wage slaves—and concluded that the solution was not simply to demand that the bosses be nicer to them or pay them more, but to abolish the bosses entirely.

One is almost tempted to call this Marxist, but it was many years before Marx.

But the mill owners were not happy with this agitation. They fired the workers who were causing trouble. Their another striking plan was to send girls to the school to instil discipline and order among them. The curriculum mostly consisted of memorisation of useless facts. The schooling system had no impact on productivity of the works because of its practically useless curriculum. But the mill owners still insisted on running and building such schools because such type of system was inculcating industrious habits in workers, teaching them to blindly follow the orders of superiors above them. As a manager put it

I have never considered mere knowledge, valuable as it is in itself to the laborer, as the only advantage derived from a good common-school education. I have uniformly found the better educated, as a class, possessing a higher and better state of morals, more orderly and respectful in their deportment, and more ready to comply with the wholesome and necessary regulations of an establishment.

The factory model along with mandatory schooling spread. Towns getting a school was not its growth into a city nor a rise in incomes nor the introduction of expensive machinery, but instead the introduction of the factory system itself. As factories marched across the country, public schools followed.

The same system continues till date. The schooling system curriculum has not changed to include things of practical importance.

They are always followed by calls for “education reform” and “higher standards,” which in practice always translates into the same old “drill and skill” of old. And, of course, that’s exactly the point.

This seems like a conspiracy theory. But if you look back at history, it is just a bunch of mill owners who sent their workers to school, so that they would follow their orders blindly.

Currently, students are just drilled to improve their test scores by teaching special vocab words that will earn them extra points and reminded about how to properly phrase their answers to get the maximum score. This has been a boon to the textbook market who went on to produce more books like workbooks with a goal to train these students for tests.

The effect on the students is heart breaking.

Taught that reading is simply about searching contrived stories for particular “text features,” they learn to hate reading. Taught that answering questions is simply about cycling through the multiple-choice answers to find the most plausible ones, they begin to stop thinking altogether and just spout random combinations of test buzzwords whenever they’re asked a question. “The joy of finding things out” is banished from the classroom. Testing is in session

Such drills don’t teach children anything about the world, but it does teach them “skills”—skills like how to follow senseless orders and sit at your desk for hours at a time.

But may be this was the whole plan. After all, employers seem to like it just fine.

Welcome to Unschooling (Age-14)

Unschooling someone is surprisingly simple. You first deal with what ever regulations your state requires to home school, then the child simply stays home and explores the world as he pleases. Parents and other adults can provide him with advice and assistance on things he’s interested in, but must do their best not to force the kid into things. This is not just to brain wish kids, but it is based on the writings of educator John Holt, which reflects the simple principle that “kids want to learn!”

The book - Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn is an incredible guide for unschooling. The book contains 3 parts

  • why you should not go to school
  • how to get out of school
  • what to do once you’ve gotten out

The book has plenty of experiences where unschooling has improved family relationships, “cured” cases of depression or “learning disabilities”, and, most importantly, made kids much more happier.

Studies have show that unschooled children are successful in real world, and are better at things without taking a conventional course. Also, since they have a lot of time, they also get a hands on experience by working as apprentice or volunteering.

Aaron also writes how he developed the skill of writing so well…

I learned English not from school, but by writing emails and this column, as well as reading heavily. When I tell this to other students, they say: “Oh, I wish I could do that, but I don’t have enough time.” Well, if they don’t go to school, I’m sure that they’ll have much more. It’s quick and painless: just read interesting books and write about things that you’re interested in. Keep doing it and your writing is sure to improve – no pain or struggle involved.

Similarly, subjects like math and science can also be learnt without school. In schools, students are mostly taught computation and symbol manipulation which are the least interesting parts, and can be done by a simple computer. Math is really about study of patterns and understanding them. Science in school, is merely reduced to memorization of facts. But science is about questioning and understanding the world around you.

… scientific explorations need not be limited to her classroom, or any other. Instead, the world around us is an enormous classroom and we merely need the time to explore it, and the drive to ask questions and try to answer them.

Aaron continues…

As TLH points out, adolescence is one of the most exciting and important times of transformation in a child. Other cultures mark it through strong and powerful experiences: the town coming together to perform a hallowed tribal ritual; sending the child out on a quest or journey making him into a man when he returns; etc. Why do we go on like nothing is happening, throwing our children into a mind-numbing, spine-straightening, painfully useless ordeal

But it seems to most of the people the kids become social hermit through this unschooling. But that is wrong. Meaningful relationships can be made outside of school too. In fact, in school there is hardly time to develop a good relationship. The bonding develops when kids meet outside of the school.

Aaron from his own experience tells that…

who decided that meaningful relationships could only be had with other people who happen to be in roughly the same physical area at roughly the same age? If anything, this is a severely restrained peer group. I have developed my most meaningful relationships online. None of them live within driving distance. None of them are about my own age. Even among those who I would not count as “friends”, I have met many people online who have simply commented on my work or are interested by what I do. Through the Internet, I’ve developed a strong social network – something I could never do if I had to keep my choice of peers within school grounds.

In the concluding paragraphs, Aaron expresses his strong hope in unschooling

So many people complain about the quality of our school systems today, and are ready for a change in the system. Unschooling is not only a change – it’s a tidal wave knocking out all that we know and believe about the school system and providing a vastly different – and better – alternative.

Aaron concludes

Finally, I end with a plea. If you have kids, or know kids, who are stuck in the monotony of school, give them an escape route: buy them a copy of Teenage Liberation Handbook. I’m sure they’ll thank you for it. It’s time for the kids to rise up and take control of our lives again. Our slavery has lasted long enough.

The Writings of John Holt (Age-14)

John Holt, a radical educator was the guy who invented the concept of unschooling. He was previously a teacher, who worked hard to make learning fun through educational toys and used innovative educational techniques. But he felt something was missing.

So, he stopped teaching and began observing kids. He observed them over an year and took notes, which were also published as a book - How Children Fail. He realized that students were not actually learning, but just merely pretending to have learnt things. He figured out the defence mechanism and strategies that kids developed so that they would not appear stupid in front of the class. This became clear from the balance beam “experiment”. The students were given several weights and they had to guess where on the beam to place them to make it balance. And the responses were…

Abby: It might move a little to one side – not much. Elaine: It might teeter a little then balance, but not really. (She is covering all the possibilities.) Rachel: It might balance. Pat: It will balance pretty much. […] Gary: I think it’s just going to go down – that’s safer. […] Gil: May go down a little and then come back up. Garry: It will be about even. Betty: I sort of think it’s going to balance. […] Betty: I’ll say it will, just in case it does, so we won’t get too low a score.

Students, here are not interested in knowing the truth. They just don’t want to look stupid in front of others, so they make vague statements, hoping it will be interpreted as the right answer.

John stops working as a teacher and starts spending his time with baby cousins. The children were given interesting toys and they would start to play with it themselves. He noticed that they were observing, experimenting and discovering things better by themselves. So, John didn’t interfere except at providing small nudges and moral support at few moments.

One day, he gave the children the balance beam. He puts it at the back of the room and says “just some junk I got from Bill Hull. […] Nothing special; mess around with it if you want to.” They began to play around with it and figured how the thing worked with in half an hour by themselves. When a kid was asked the problem, that John gave previously to the kids(the problem mentioned above), she answered it correctly and showed him how she had figured it out. The kid also remarked that it was cinchy and she had no trouble in figuring it out!

The reason, why kids earlier had failed to understand, in spite of the laboratory environment setup in class because kids were working on a problem, that was ours not theirs.

Kids learn best, through self exploration and discovery. But many teachers don’t provide the environment for it. Teachers either want to be a tyrant - “You better do this” or a Saints-“You will thank me for it later”. In fact, some teachers don’t even allow toys thinking that it will slow down the curriculum learning. But that is not how children learn. Instead they learn to hide, play dumb, forget, weasel their way out, or trick you. Worse, they begin to think that this is how to behave in every situation.

Anyone working at school should read How Children Fail . And anyone with small children should read How Children Learn.

It describes in detail just that process, and by example, provides ways to keep your children learning their entire life, rather than hating the whole thing and quitting as soon as possible as too many children do. For some children, it may be too late to unlearn the bad habits they learned in school, but it is certainly never too early.

Apprentice Education (Age-14)

Aaron in this blog, presents a idea of building a free and open learning community. The current system of schooling has some important drawbacks

  • It detaches the one-on-one relationship between Teacher and Student
  • Very little practical information is provided to the students, majority of learning takes place in job
  • The curriculum doesn’t cover latest ideas and developments

Aaron writes how he learned to program well, without any formal training

I learned how to program myself through reading programs others had written, and asking questions about them on the Web. Responses to my naive questions were generally courteous and almost always helpful. I got back responses extremely quickly – rarely longer than a day. And through this method I eventually learned to program. I took no pre-set course, and had no usual instruction. However, while I was able to learn to program through this method, there is no similar system to learn to program well, which is usually something altogether different.

So, Aaron proposes a new idea of learn in any field, based on his experience. First find a group of kind, older, wise and respected people in the field and get them on the Internet. Then, take a group of brash, young, naive and impatient kids who are interested field and have them do the same. Then, bring the two together and watch the magic happen.

The old and the Young will learn from each other together joyfully. As Aaron puts it…

The old will explain many things to the young, and the young will teach the old a few things too. The young will get an incredible opportunity to learn the most important things first-hand from the people who use them in real-life; the old will get an opportunity to share the joy of their trade with bright-eyed kids eager to learn it.

The outcomes of this will be tremendous. Some of the best method for explaining something will become well-known, and can be written up. There will be a “textbook”, not written by experts in the field with dry examples, but a textbook filled with real-life subject matter.

And everything must be voluntary!

What’s important, however, is that we don’t force anyone into this program. Everything must be voluntary, or else we’ll lose the magic of community.

Yet, if we’re lucky, and everything succeeds, we’ll have built an educational community that’s free, enjoyable and available to anyone world-wide. Sure seems like everyone wins to me.

What It Means to Be an Intellectual (Age-19)

There is a social norm that how much we discuss about a topic should be directly proportional to its importance. For example, spending hours of discussion on politics is accepted as opposed to spending the same hours on discussing punctuation. But there is some kind drive in few people, which causes them to thin deeply about things, irrespective of its outcome or importance. Aaron calls them intellectuals!

…It’s the tendency to not simply accept things as they are but to want to think about them, to understand them. To not be content to simply feel sad but to ask what sadness means. To not just get a bus pass but to think about the economic reasons getting a bus pass makes sense. I call this tendency the intellectual.

Most people don’t think enough. Maybe, because thinking reminds them of school, which they might have not enjoyed. Some People also don’t like to think because they are busy doing stuff. They consider thinking as a waste of time, as they believe that it doesn’t matter to them.

Intellectuals(according to Aaron) spend their most of them their time thinking about details like intricacies in language, something which seems of little importance. But there is a good reason behind it. Language is the medium of thought. Anyone who has thought enough about something would like to communicate these thoughts in a better way to the world. Hence intellectuals write, not because they are paid to, but because they love to. What good is thinking if you can’t share?

Getting It Wrong (Age-19)

People are terrified with getting things wrong. At school, kids are afraid that on giving the wrong answer might make them look stupid. The same is with adults, they are sometimes embarrassed to acknowledge their ignorance while discussions.

This is a serious problem because failing is what we mostly do. We try things that are slightly outside our comfort zone, fail many times, learn from them and improve. That is how we get better at things. But if people are afraid of failure, they don’t even try anything new.

There are 2 ways to fix this

  • Build an environment preventing failure
  • Fix people so that they are not embarrassed to fail

The first way is a dangerous way. For example, if you try to build an environment for kids where they don’t fail at all, they won’t be able to handle failure out in real world. So, a better option would be fix people’s self-esteem. But the problem with this is, self-esteem is like a cushion: it prevents the fall from being too damaging, but it doesn’t prevent the fall.

The real solution is to detach people’s actions from their worth. People feel bad because they think failing at something makes a failure.

The real piece, it would seem, is finding some way to detach a student’s actions from their worth. The reason failing hurts is because we think it reflects badly on us. I failed, therefore I’m a failure. But if that’s not the case, then there’s nothing to feel hurt about.

The idea of detachment also has a good psychological background. These are mentioned in the book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, showing that Buddhist meditation, Christian belief in God, or cognitive therapy — are happier people, when they are detached from the surroundings.

Parents should love their children, for who they are rather than on what they do. When given a chance to ask questions anonymously, people don’t hesitate to ask questions that they believe are stupid. While playing a video game alone, kids try again and again to win. So, its easier to try out things freely, when you know no one is watching you. Its because you are aware that it is not going to effect how people see you.

Hence schools, should discourage this kind of conditional seeing. As Aaron writes …

What if school, instead of a bunch of activities you had to march through, was a bunch of activities students could pick and choose from. When people are no longer marching, it’s hard to be worried about your place in line.

..Removing deadlines and requirements should help students live more fully in the moment. Providing basic care to every student should help them feel valued as people.

Take the Easy Way Out (Age-19)

People often tell that there is no substitute for hard work. If you are failing at doing something, “just try harder!” they say. It doesn’t have to be that way. If your hands hurt while trying to punch a wall, instead of trying to punch harder you should look around for a tool to help you do the job.

Aaron takes the example of Bemami games, which made the process of learning a music instrument enjoyable instead of tedious. (Readers may watch this video, to get an idea of Bemami games) The reasons why Bemami games are effective are…

  • You play a real song! Generally, while learning a new instrument people start with baby songs, which might not be exciting. But with Bemami games, you learn while playing a real song. People are excited to learn because they play the music which they enjoyed listening.

  • It gives feedback on your practice and learning with the concept of skill levels. This also encourages you to keep practising to higher your levels.

  • In conventional learning, people get stuck when they hit a wrong note, and practice it for a long time. This develops frustration in the learners. But in case of Bemami, the music keeps going. This might seem like a disadvantage, but you are not stuck on a single mistake. Keeping the music moving forces you to look at the bigger picture.

    Good designers, when they see people having trouble using something they designed, don’t tell the user to try harder. They fix the design. We should take the same attitude when we design our life as well.

Legacy (Age-19)

The conventional way to measure a person’s importance is to see what effect of what he/she has done in a particular field. For example, a supreme court justice lawyers are considered important because their decisions and actions affect an entire nation. But is this the right way to measure legacy? Do ambitious people who want to leave legacy focus on doing things that effect large number of people?

Aaron says that is a wrong way to measure legacy. Instead, if you want to leave a legacy, you should think how things would be if you wouldn’t have done it. Would people’s lives be the same, if you didn’t do it? For example, academics sometimes chose a field of work, because they believe it is “hot”! And they think that they would be famous if they make some discovery in that field. But people like Newton and Darwin didn’t work because they felt that they were “hot” fields to pursue, but they worked because they felt that their discovery would have some good impact!

If you are a supreme court justice, most of your work would be influenced by politicians above you. But if you really want to leave a legacy, you should care about bringing change in politics and the system. Or if you want to be a professor, instead of just focusing on a getting a job in a university, you should be focusing on changing the nature of the universities.

Though it seems that these are dangerous games that require a lot of time, effort and courage to do such things, there is no choice if you genuinely care about leaving a legacy.

(This blog is reminiscent of the idea of “Jumping out of the system” from GEB. A blog explaining the idea)