February 8, 2013

"The other night, when [redacted] asked me why I switched from computer science to sociology, I said..."

"... it was because Computer Science was hard and I wasn’t really good at it, which really isn’t true at all... The real reason is because I want to save the world," wrote Aaron Swartz, quoted in a long article titled "The Idealist: Aaron Swartz wanted to save the world. Why couldn’t he save himself?"

48 comments:

m stone said...

Eight or nine months before he died, Swartz became fixated on Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s massive, byzantine novel.

DFW seems to be figuring in a lot of posts lately.

bpm4532 said...

I guess we save the world one district attorney at a time.

Nonapod said...

Wrong answer. If you really want to "save the world", you can do far more good with technology than you can with sociology.

Shouting Thomas said...

The world needs saving?

Sorun said...

I thought world-savers went into journalism. Maybe that's world-changers.

Chip S. said...

So, in the end, it came down to a choice b/w majoring in sociology or killing himself?

It all makes sense now.

sparrow said...

Sounds more like a narcissist than an idealist to me.

glenn said...

"Aaron Swartz wanted to save the world. Why couldn’t he save himself?"

Because he was unstable. And nothing in his life had prepared him for something bad happening. Life isn't always a bed of roses.

edutcher said...

Soc isn't hard at all, but CS isn't THAT hard, once you get past Calc II.

The guy just didn't want to work is all.

ricpic said...

I'll take Save The World for the win, Alex.

virgil xenophon said...

Chip S for the win!

SGT Ted said...

Yup a nice touch of narcissism shown by both Aaron and Higher Education in general.

No one graduate of any college is equipped to save anybody, much less the "world". College graduates are trained for ENTRY LEVEL employment in their respective fields. These days, they can barely save their credit rating.


That why we make fun of them in the Service: A 2nd Lieutenant with a map is a punch line for a joke.

Shouting Thomas said...

The Savior has already appeared. Didn't anybody tell these people?

Here's what he said:

Love your neighbor!

and

Forgive your enemies!

Scott M said...

Why couldn't he save himself? One word - "sociology".

Going from the precise, uber-logical world of computer science into the fuzzy, ill-defined and subjective world of sociology would drive anyone nuts.

Tangentially, to decide YOU're going to do something so YOU can save the world displays a psyche already one arm in the straight jacket, doesn't it? For the sake of argument, let's assume he wasn't from Krypton.

Scott M said...

So, in the end, it came down to a choice b/w majoring in sociology or killing himself?

Well-crafted, sir.

Zach said...

Insisting that the world be perfect by your standards is not idealism. It's literal mindedness and lack of empathy for others crossed with a mild case of OCD, and it's not a mature response at all.

Swartz was perfectly within his rights to argue that information should be free. Lessig argues that, and you can tell that Lessig was a big influence in Swartz's life. But Lessig is content to live in an imperfect world, while Swartz insisted on making it "perfect" by direct action.

prairie wind said...

The world needs saving?

Excellent, ST.

chrisnavin.com said...

Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good.

ed said...

@ Sgt Ted

"That why we make fun of them in the Service: A 2nd Lieutenant with a map is a punch line for a joke."

Why do you never give a 2nd Lt a non-digital watch for a present?

Because they'll get them confused with a compass and end up going around in circles.

"Dammit! The North Pole keeps moving around!?"

ed said...

And let us not forget. His "direct action" application of his ideals was to ... rip off articles from MIT!?

How does that make a perfect world? MIT already makes an enormous amount of material free for public use already. If he simply waited a couple years all that material probably would have joined the public material and the whole thing would have been moot.

It's like someone declaring that they will make the world better by producing an improved version of Pong. Really? You couldn't think of anything better?

Larry J said...

Anyone who believes he can save the world has delusions of adequacy.

Jeff said...

I call shenanigans; when I switched from computer science to sociology it was entirely because the former was difficult and I was not good at it, and anyone smart enough to be successful in compsci can't be dumb enough to think that a sociologist can save anything. People go into sociology because it is easy, but lofty (as opposed to philosophy, which is lofty but not easy, or anthropology which is the inverse). You can save some face (at least in the right circles). Any smart person interested in saving the world would go into one of the hard sciences (bio/chem in particular).

Jeff said...

I call shenanigans; when I switched from computer science to sociology it was entirely because the former was difficult and I was not good at it, and anyone smart enough to be successful in compsci can't be dumb enough to think that a sociologist can save anything. People go into sociology because it is easy, but lofty (as opposed to philosophy, which is lofty but not easy, or anthropology which is the inverse). You can save some face (at least in the right circles). Any smart person interested in saving the world would go into one of the hard sciences (bio/chem in particular).

Bruce Hayden said...

Jeff - think that the "hard" depends on hard work or hard to understand, and my kid would argue that bio is for those who aren't smart enough for chem, and chem is for those who aren't smart enough for physics. The thing that the first two have over physics is that they have more lab work (though physics labs do take a bit of work), and there is a lot more memorization. The real ball breakers in physics appear to be the homework - we are talking 24 hour take home exams (that is how long it took to do the problems, not how much wall clock they gave them) and 12 hour problem sets.

CS is hard for some, and, again, it is the labs and homework. But, I went back and took some higher level CS classes afterr 20 years of experience, 15 as a software engineer, and the problem with the labs and homework was that the students didn't know what they were doing. What they took hours to accomplish, I could sometimes do in 15-20 minutes, because I didn't have to do much editing, and almost no debugging. This comes from years of writing and debugging large programs, and the programs you write in class are the sizes of moderately small subroutines.

Still, STEM is STEM, esp. compared to the rest of the disciplines, and arguing about which is harder, bio, chem, or physics, really ignores the point that they are all much harder than most college majors.

Bruce Hayden said...

Jeff - think that the "hard" depends on hard work or hard to understand, and my kid would argue that bio is for those who aren't smart enough for chem, and chem is for those who aren't smart enough for physics. The thing that the first two have over physics is that they have more lab work (though physics labs do take a bit of work), and there is a lot more memorization. The real ball breakers in physics appear to be the homework - we are talking 24 hour take home exams (that is how long it took to do the problems, not how much wall clock they gave them) and 12 hour problem sets.

CS is hard for some, and, again, it is the labs and homework. But, I went back and took some higher level CS classes afterr 20 years of experience, 15 as a software engineer, and the problem with the labs and homework was that the students didn't know what they were doing. What they took hours to accomplish, I could sometimes do in 15-20 minutes, because I didn't have to do much editing, and almost no debugging. This comes from years of writing and debugging large programs, and the programs you write in class are the sizes of moderately small subroutines.

Still, STEM is STEM, esp. compared to the rest of the disciplines, and arguing about which is harder, bio, chem, or physics, really ignores the point that they are all much harder than most college majors.

Peter said...

'ed' said, "MIT already makes an enormous amount of material free for public use already."

Indeed. MIT's open courseware is a treasure trove.

http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm

It's hard not to see Aaron Swartz's death as truly tragic, in the sense that a young man of considerable potential was ultimately destroyed by his own tragic flaw.

Bruce Hayden said...

Sorry for the double post. Appears to be a bug in signing on to Google to post on Blogger, and maybe caused here by Safari, or by clicking twice on "click here", when the first time didn't appear to work.

I always thought that it was weird, because Blogger usually catches me when I do something that would result in a double posting, but this time did not.

Steve Koch said...

I first majored in econ, then switched to psychology, and then switched to Math. I graduated with a degree in Math but was already more interested in computer science (and got an MS in CS).

What I like about Math and CS is that they are rigorous.

Bruce Hayden said...

Steve - the flip side with math is that it typically doesn't require nearly as much out-of-class work as do other STEM classes. Upper level classes are often quite hard theoretically, but don't require that much homework.

And, I did somewhat the same thing as you did - math major with ultimately a concentration on CS, because at the time there was not a separate CS major. And, I too fell in love with CS, spending 15 of the next 20 years professionally in software engineering, where I concentrated on operating systems and data communications software.

If you could hack it, math was maybe the easiest major when I was in college. No comps, GREs, or thesis, and I only had to write one paper the entire time (which was totally BS, so I summarized, in equations, my linear algebra class for abstract algebra). And, for some of them, it was just "let's pretend" for the class period. So, we could play with the ramifications of a non-Euclidian geometry, where two dimensional objects are not flat (but, for example, on the outside of a sphere), and so the sum of the angles of triangles aren't equal to 180 degrees, and parallel lines intersect, and other lines can intersect more than once.

Never could figure out why more people weren't math majors. Probably the reason that I survived there was that my mother's family had so many math majors and engineers, and so was brought up by her believing that math was easy, and, so, maybe it was for us, thanks to her. I tried to do the same for my kid, teaching them, for example, derivatives, as an extension of algebra in middle school. And, so, I was unsurprised that they were able to successfully add a math major to their physics major in college.

traditionalguy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
traditionalguy said...

Swartz M O was to attract saviors of Swartz.

That always worked for him until the day he noticed everyone had abandoned him and taken cover themselves.

The Feds just want to do their public torture and lynchings to create fear of the Feds.

Swartz is lucky that he was not Droned to smithereens by the Feds.

Crunchy Frog said...

Steve - the flip side with math is that it typically doesn't require nearly as much out-of-class work as do other STEM classes. Upper level classes are often quite hard theoretically, but don't require that much homework.

Until you get into matrix manipulation. Six pages for one lousy homework problem.

God I hated linear algebra.

Smilin' Jack said...

On Jan. 4, 2013, Aaron Swartz woke up in an excellent mood. “He turned to me,” recalls his girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, “and said, apropos of nothing, ‘This is going to be a great year.’ ”

Ha! Like those kids at Waco, he sadly misunderestimated the power of our tax dollars at work, as embodied in the Department of Justice. His death, like theirs, makes one proud to be an American.

Big Mike said...

Jaron Lanier, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and a whole bunch of computer pioneers who wound up face down in the dust with an arrow in their back have done more to change the world than all the sociologists who've ever lived.

MarkD said...

Big Mike for the win. I was stuck in an Intro to Sociology class my freshman year. I'd rather repeat boot camp at Parris Island.

karlpoppersghost said...

Another Jew with a messiah complex who got crucified by the authorities.

I see a religion brewing.

May the Swartz be with you!

Scott M said...

May the Swartz be with you!

"Too Jewish."

Dante said...

Computer Science is as hard or nearly as easy as you want it to be.

One of the millennium problems is to indicate whether a certain class of problems (called NP Complete) take a bounded time to compute or not. So that's a super hard problem.

Then there are easy parts of computer science, like setting up html. Ann Althouse has done some of that on this blog.

But there are a few things about computer science that are different than sociology.

It's hard to get away with bad logic. Because the system will throw up on you (crash, not do what it's supposed to do, etc).

Sociology on the other hand allows you to put in all kinds of garbage into the system (the society), and it might make absolutely no sense at all, but it is revered as Great Work provided enough code words are put in, the topic is right,etc.

Like the black guy dressed up in a KKK outfit making a very clear point about black on black murders, makes people angry. The computer system would say "Yep, that makes sense," but the sociology folks say "You are missing the point."

Dante said...

And for those computer science folks, that should read "What kind of bounded time it takes," for the NP complete problem.

Revenant said...

The "getting the computer to do what you want" bit is the easy part of computer science.

SOJO said...

No one read the article.

Steve Koch said...

I had a Phd level theory of network communications course from Simon Lam. He showed us how to mathematically analyze networking protocols. One time he spent a full hour at the board on a single derivation. At the end of the hour, after scores of rapid fire intermediate results, he ends up with an equation with an unknown variable on one side and asks us what that variable represents. Nearly the whole class was lost by this point and nobody attempted an answer. With great trepidation, I raise my hand and say "the average number of hops for delivery of a packet in that network". That turned out to be the correct answer. Lam seemed to be disappointed that he had not stumped all of us.



I once attended a lecture by Dijkstra. I don't remember much about the lecture except that he was the strangest lecturer I ever heard.

chickelit said...

SOJO said...
No one read the article.

I skimmed the whole thing..nothing struck me.

Dante said...

The "getting the computer to do what you want" bit is the easy part of computer science.

I want a computer to do all the things my wife does, but whine, cheat, lie, but I still haven't figured out how to get it to do that.

Nini said...

Jaron Lanier, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and a whole bunch of computer pioneers who wound up face down in the dust with an arrow in their back have done more to change the world than all the sociologists who've ever lived.>

Steve Jobs or do you mean to say Steve Wozniak? Wasn't Jobs more of a marketer than a technologist?

Eric said...

Sounds more like a narcissist than an idealist to me.

Yeah. People who tell you they want to "save the world" are really saying they want to remake it in their own image.

Jim Gust said...

I don't have any sympathy for Swartz' politics. He was naive, immature, perhaps too smart for his own good.

That doesn't justify hounding him to death by a sadistic government persecutor.

Keep in mind that JSTOR adopted new policies consistent with the purported objectives of Swartz "crimes" and still the malicious government would not relent.

We should not tolerate this treatment of those who "don't fit in." Ortiz should the object of scorn in this drama, not Swartz.

Steve Koch said...

Swartz's response to getting caught and being prosecuted was suicide. I think people have the right to end their life when they want to but it seems like Swartz over reacted. Even if he was convicted, wouldn't he have gone to a federal prison for white collar criminals for not that long?

I spent a night in jail once for driving while hippie in Missouri one night. I was in a big cell with 4 other guys. 3 of the guys were telling a fourth guy that they were going to rape him that night.