One of us is no more.

Computer activist Aaron H. Swartz committed suicide in New York City yesterday, Jan. 11.

The accomplished Swartz co-authored the now widely-used RSS 1.0 specification at age 14, was one of the three co-owners of the popular social news site Reddit, and completed a fellowship at Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. In 2010, he founded, a “campaign against the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA.”

He deserves a eulogy more eloquent than what I am capable of writing. Here's Cory Doctorow's, one of his long time friends.

It's a sad world in which you are being arrested and grand jury'd for downloading scientific journals and papers with the intent to share them.

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It looks like Aaron Swartz may have willed all his money to Givewell. This... makes it even sadder, somehow, in ways I don't know how to describe.

His last Reddit comment was on /r/HPMOR.

Lawrence Lessig writes that Swartz's legal troubles had caused Swartz's wealth to have been "bled dry".

This makes me angry. Can we perhaps raise the lost money on the internet and send it to GiveWell? Aaron's tribute site has a link to them, but that's not the same as an organized campaign (specific goal, progress meter, mailing list, etc.)


One of my favorite quotes of his, from Fix the machine, not the person:

[When a] system isn’t working, it doesn’t make sense to just yell at the people in it — any more than you’d try to fix a machine by yelling at the gears. True, sometimes you have the wrong gears and need to replace them, but more often you’re just using them in the wrong way. When there’s a problem, you shouldn’t get angry with the gears — you should fix the machine.

...You can’t force other people to change. You can, however, change just about everything else. And usually, that’s enough.

That's really disturbing. I exchanged some friendly emails with him a few months back last time :/ . Didn't think of this as a possibility at all. So sad to see younger people go.

Sidenote: something is profoundly wrong with US. 35 years sentence even as a possibility? What the hell? In the EU he'd face some fine and community service maybe and that's about it, or actually nothing at all as the case would have been dropped when MIT and JSTOR backed down.

Lessig: Prosecutor as bully. His crime was pissing off the wrong people: a government of men, not laws.

From the Cory Doctorow link in the OP:
Yes, that's what I was referring to. It is crazy.

JSTOR's first best outcome was probably for Swartz to go to jail while having people think that JSTOR didn't want him to go to jail.

JSTOR weaseled, but this will follow Kevin Guthrie and Laura Brown for the rest of their lives. As it should.

Too optimistic.
Recent evidence points towards him being related to wikileaks sources. One theory is that he was related to these activities but the government couldn't prove it. Therefore using this to arrest him. There's evidence that supports this theory like the fact that at the time of his arrest the hardware where he stored the info he "stole" weren't confiscated. It's like they didn't care what his charges were.

From the linked Cory Doctorow eulogy:

This morning, a lot of people are speculating that Aaron killed himself because he was worried about doing time. That might be so. Imprisonment is one of my most visceral terrors, and it's at least credible that fear of losing his liberty, of being subjected to violence (and perhaps sexual violence) in prison, was what drove Aaron to take this step. But Aaron was also a person who'd had problems with depression for many years.

A depressed 26-year-old faced a significant probability of spending decades in a small steel cage in which he would face a high likelihood of being repeatedly raped.

I suspect from his writings undiagnosed (and untreated) bipolar - the descriptions of the depression, the tour de force creativity runs. I could be seeing this through bipolar-coloured glasses, of course - I don't have bipolar, but I have loved ones who do. It's scary shit, and frequently really hard to treat in any effective manner.

I think his self-ideal must have been, a person who solves problems, important problems that need solving. And that is why he didn't seek help. Perhaps he was used to solving problems by himself, perhaps he didn't even trust other people to solve them correctly. So he simply ignored or endured the depression and the physical illness when they occurred. And he managed to survive that lifestyle for his first ten years as a hacktivist, but eventually he ran up against something that he couldn't topple or dodge, so in the end he chose that solution which also offers final relief.

I would argue suicide is only weak evidence of mental illness. You may be overly primed to search for evidence of mental illness or usual features because of the suicide. I only point this out because I see the fundamental attribution error a lot when people talk of similar circumstances.
It seems I am too incompetent to make myself understood.

I would just like to register my preference that those who retract comments leave the original text in place. In most cases, I believe the retraction itself serves the purposes of retraction pretty well, whereas replacing the text is sort of overkill and detracts from the conversation.

I generally agree, but I can see the point of making an exception in cases such as disclosure of confidential information, potential basilisks, etc.
It's not that simple. Sometimes the illness is perfectly treatable, but in practice you're never able to get treatment before you die, unless one of the people you talk to goes far beyond the call of duty and drops their whole life to help you get treatment and magically divines how and when to help instead of behaving like a bull in a china shop and making everyone else terrified of mentioning depression.
Oh, for Pete's sake! I understand you were describing a view you don't share, I was just pointing out middles in the dichotomy.
Based on that, curing all forms of insanity would reduce suicide dramatically, by about an order of magnitude; but it's only about 3 bits of evidence, which you could argue is fairly weak evidence.
"the descriptions of the depression"
Ah he explicitly talked about having troubles, I thought you where speculating based on your divination of his writing in context of this discussion.
He didn't talk about how the tour de force creativity runs felt (as far as I've found so far), I'm taking his observable body of work as evidence of them. So looking at his body of work and seeing mania as well as depression is surmise on my part.

I feel like there's nothing I can say that will do justice to this tragedy, but it seems worse to say nothing.

Aaron was a hero, and the world will be a darker place without him.

I feel sad. I almost always cry when I feel death in near mode. I didn't know Aaron except for his glorious deeds and LW posts, but it still feels awful.

I feel guilty because there are many more people I can't cry for. Aaron was a cool guy, but so are all the other people who die every day.

I feel angry at the world for being so terrible and destroying one of us forever. Death is unacceptable. Let's stop this, OK?


Can we promote this to Main in homage? That's the piece I remembered when I realized "Oh crap, this Aaron Swartz".

He killed himself; this is true. He faced 35 years of confinement and the very-real prospect of rape. This, too, is true. He was criminalized for his intent to freely distribute scientific knowledge. This makes him a hero. He broke, but only storybook heroes are unbreakable. It's depressing how society seems to persecute those most able to improve it; that the broken machine slays those very engineers who've dedicated their lives to its repair.

The public servants responsible for the case against Aaron Swartz as of July 2011:

U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz
Special Agent in Charge Steven D. Ricciardi
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen P. Heymann
Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott L. Garland
Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert C. Haas
The U.S. Secret Service’s Electronic Crimes Task Force
The Cambridge Police Department
The MIT Police Department

May they be remembered.

--Teresa Nielsen Hayden

This is from the discussion I mentioned as "more links"-- I probably should have said something about how thorough it is.

White House petition re: Carmen Ortiz. Surprisingly popular after just a few hours.

The petition has gone over 25K.
Wonder if they'll let it run or kill it early.
I doubt they'll kill it before new signatures start to drop off.
Petition to fire Stephen Heymann
Why would you compile a list like this?

I didn't compile it, Teresa Nielsen Hayden (probably) did.

I promulgated it because I want there to be some social costs for disproportionate prosecution.

What social cost is that? How do you infer how much of it, if any, has been assessed? Is this actually an effective method?
Well, the petition to have Carmen Ortiz removed from her position has gathered more than the required 25,000 signatures to be reviewed by the administration, in under four days. It's unlikely to result in her removal, but neither is it an auspicious sign for her career.
It won't result in her resignation. However, it's also important to kill her political aspirations.
Achievement unlocked. "U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz is fighting to hold on to her job, and to avoid an embarrassing grilling in Congress and possible professional disciplinary proceedings. Her prospects look grim." (I am giggling at this and depressed that Aaron can't see it and laugh and laugh.)
This has nothing to do with posting a list of people alleged to be responsible to a discussion thread here.
I would argue otherwise. I personally signed the petition as a result of finding out about it on this page, as well as the similar petition for Steve Heymann, and if I'm ever in a position as a voter to influence the careers of other members of the list, their part in the proceedings would certainly be of interest to me.
The petitions were not linked in the original comment. I am not, in this thread, discussing the petitions. That is why I did not reply to the comments that link to the petition. I want to know the rationale behind promulgating (as it were) the aforementioned list.
Well, even if it's only very slightly effective in incurring a social cost on the involved parties via informing people whose political careers to keep an eye on, it's certainly unlikely to be less effective than not posting such a list, all else being equal.

So, The Tech is reporting that Aaron Swartz has killed himself. No suicide note has surfaced, PGP-signed or otherwise. No public statements that I've been able to find have identified witnesses or method. Aaron Swartz was known for having many enemies. There's the obvious enemies in the publishing industry and the US attorneys office. Cory Doctorow wrote that he had "a really unfortunate pattern of making high-profile, public denunciations of his friends and mentors."

I'd like to raise the possibility that this was not a natural event. Most of this evidence can be adequately explained by how little time has passed, so we'll know more in a few days or weeks.

Strange side note: He had a PGP public key on his web page at, retrievable from Wayback Machine, but the link went bad some time after Jul 28 2012. All other links on the site seem to be fine.

Additional side note: if your chance of being murdered ever goes past 0.01, state publicly that you don't believe in suicide and that any suicide note would definitely be cryptographically verifiable. If it ever goes past 0.05, set up a record-audio-to-Internet button that you can activate in under a second, then give your lawyer a signed message saying that any supposed suicide note which lacks a certain phrase is fake.

The New York Times has more information about circumstances:

Aaron Swartz, a wizardly programmer who as a teenager helped develop code that delivered ever-changing Web content to users and later became a steadfast crusader to make that information freely available, was found dead on Friday in his New York apartment.

He was 26.

An uncle, Michael Wolf, said that Mr. Swartz had apparently hanged himself, and that Mr. Swartz’s girlfriend had discovered the body.

No public statements that I've been able to find have identified witnesses or method.

I don't know if the relevant news reports had been released at the time this comment had been posted, but the apparent method of Swartz's death was hanging.

When you narrow down the set of people who could be considered Aaron Swartz's enemies to those who could have him killed and have it reported as a suicide, who would benefit more from his apparent death by suicide than his being drained of funds and convicted of felony, and ask whether this is realistic behavior for the remaining members of that set, particularly when you consider that the individual in question had written about his struggles with depression and was facing the prospect of dramatically worsening life conditions, I think this sort of speculation is more naive than cynical.

No suicide note has surfaced, PGP-signed or otherwise. No public statements that I've been able to find have identified witnesses or method.

Some of this information has been released since the posting of the parent, but because the tone of the post feels like it was jumping a gun or two, I wanted to throw this out there:

There are good reasons why the media might not want to go into detail on these things, especially when the person in question was young, famous and popular. The relatively recent Bridgend suicide spiral was (is?) a prime example of such neglected media ethics, but the effect itself is nothing new.

Also: some things are always bound to get out via the social grapevine, but the lack of detailed official statements within a day or two is hardly even weak evidence for anything. I'll bet the "possibility that this was not a natural event" also occurred to the police, and immediately publishing relevant details of what might have become a criminal investigation just seems plain dumb.

That's the first think that came to my mind, but I dismissed it as paranoia. But if I'm not the only one... EDIT: OTOH, there's this... What person makes a will at 26?

He seems to have been smarter than most, had more money than most, and cared more about how the world was going than most. Having a will might just have been being relatively reality-based rather than a sign of depression.

His online will is directly inspired by Eric S. Raymond's (whose example he links to as the good idea that inspired him), and ESR certainly isn't depressive.

Can you give links? (Turns out that “will” is about one of the most ungoogleable nouns out there.)
ESR's, aaronsw's.

I made a will shortly after my first child was born, and I was around 27. Standard best practice.

EDIT: OTOH, there's this... What person makes a will at 26?

It seems he published "If i get hit by a truck" in 2002, at age 16. Sad. Also, perhaps, awe-inspiring. Eliminating the problem of one's bus-factor would ordinarily be admirable... if you do it for the contingency where you simply get hit by a bus. I want, but can't, quite make myself believe that he didn't write this, at that time, in anticipation of an end like this. In that case; not awe-inspiring, only sad.

He commented that he had willed his money to GiveWell 8 months ago. I don't think Quirinius Quirrell's hypothesis is particularly likely, but I also don't think it's likely that he was planning suicide for 8 months. If he wrote up a will last week, I would find that more convincing.
Why not? Do you expect he'd have said, if he was habitually suicidal? He was arrested two years ago, so eight months is compatible with his legal troubles being a cause.
If he did not, at that time, want to commit suicide, it seems kind of odd to have the agency to make a will as a countermeasure in case you commit suicide in the future, but not have the agency to get help to prevent yourself from committing suicide. If he did want to commit suicide, it seems a bit odd to begin serious preparations more than 8 months prior to following through. Not saying it's impossible, but it reduces the strength of the evidence.
Getting help does not necessarily prevent you from doing it eventually. A lot of people waffle for a long time.
The former is odd, but possible. I'd expect him to (find a clever roundabout way to) say "I'm not acutely suicidal right now, but I'm likely to become so. I'll get my affairs in order. Please watch out for me.", given that he talked about depression, but sometimes what you can and can't do is weird. The latter wouldn't surprise me at all. "If you want to commit suicide, wait a year" is common advice, and if he was able not to immediately choose suicide, he sounded like the type to follow it - reflective, planning ahead, productive enough to make preparations in meantime.
Bit late to this, but just noting for future readers that I just made one at age 25 in a batch along with power of attorney documents and life support / living will directions after seeing how useful power of attorney documents were with a family member's medical treatment.
I dismissed it as well, (absurdity) but... I don't really have words yet for why it just seems weird.
It is weird that someone would choose suicide. To choose death over life... I cannot imagine myself making such a choice. Or are you saying it would be weird if it turned out to not be suicide after all? That is probably because the prior on committing murder over something like that is low, despite the fact that they were harassing him with serious legal hassles. Let's see how this plays out. Here is my predictionbook prediction on the subject.
This makes it a little less weird.
It seems he published "If i get hit by a truck" in 2002, at age 16. Sad. Also, perhaps, awe-inspiring. Eliminating the problem of one's bus-factor would ordinarily be admirable... if you do it for the contingency where you simply get hit by a bus. I want, but can't, quite make myself believe that he didn't write this, at that time, in anticipation of an end like this. In that case; not awe-inspiring, only sad.
He had a history of depression he talked about in public a great deal. Your comment is asinine and whoever runs this account should feel ashamed of themselves.
― Joseph Heller, Catch-22 IOW, the fact that he was depressed doesn't, by itself, provide evidence against people possibly want to take him out. (OTOH, it does largely screen out the evidence his death would otherwise provide for that, as per an argument isomorphic to this.)
Irrationality Game entry

One more human dead. One of the saddest possible things imaginable, and it happens on a daily basis. It is particularly sad to see this happen to "one of our own". I somewhat wish that we could feel this sad at each death that happens, but I don't think we could survive that amount of sadness. So we go on through life, constantly knowing deep down that utter tragedy is happening every minute, but doing our best not to think about it lest we allow it to wash over us and submerge us in a tide of constant misery.

Ugh. What a world we live in...

I know the feeling, ygert. If this is a simulation, I don't know what the heck are our simulators thinking. I just hope this is the basement and we manage to make it a better place with time.
I'm really not sure if the fact that he wanted to die makes it better or worse...

He didn't want to die, he couldn't handle going on living.

That still means he wanted to die, but the nature of his desire provokes extreme sympathy.

The psychology of suicide can get a lot more complicated than that. Feeling you absolutely must do something, but you can't bring yourself to lie down and wait, or to go to the hospital, or to call a hotline, or to take a shower, so you do the only thing you can. Watching yourself plan your own suicide, thinking "Huh. That's probably a bad idea. I wonder if I'll actually go through with it?". Being desperate both to die and to live, and picking whichever you're drifting towards until it happens to be death. Letting the suicidal part of you run the show, not because you share its goal, but because it's the only one that can get you out of bed.

That's.... an interesting analysis. Can I ask whether you're speaking from experience, or is that too personal? If not, do you have any links for where you got you're information? I myself feel self destructive from time to time, and I think that's a pretty good description of the emotions involved, so I'm a bit curious here.

First two are from experience, second two are from anecdotes whose sources I mostly forget plus a dash of experience.

I don't have nearly as much experience with suicidal thoughts that can be interpreted as "wanting to die", but I can report that the standard "too much suffering to cope with" explanation isn't universal.

Here, we fight for as long and happy lives as possible for as many as possible, no? Just imagine how bad your life is if you ACTIVELY want to reduce your lifespan. An experienced negative QALY. So I say worse. It's one of the most horrible things you could ever experience. I've heard it said that a life barely worth living, is still worth living, here. So, a life not worth living...
As noted above, suicide is not necessarily as a result of "experienced negative QALY." Indeed, I have seen it argued that our society's assumption of this is increasing the suicide rate.
It's sometimes useful to keep my thoughts about the actual value of life distinct from my thoughts about the perceived value of life. To do otherwise leads to endorsing some form of wireheading.

I'm furious, but my target is not the legal system or the idiots who bullied Swartz. I despise them, yes, but there's a bigger target that might be causing way more harm here.

I was writing this big text about it, but there wasn't really much concrete information in it. It feels like the media's lack of action, in light of the current movement and near-martyrdom status Swartz has gained now that the public media jumped on the news of the suicide and spread it all over the ball we live on, is partly to blame.

All the counterfactuals ran through my head when I read about this. Basically, Swartz was fighting for access to information, in a manner that apparently broke no laws or rules he could have been aware of, and it turned out to be the lack of public awareness about his case, and his lack of information on how the public and his friends would react and support him, that probably contributed the most to whatever complicated thing happened in his mind to make him end his life.

(ETA: It looks like other people are also picking up on this (linked article made #1 on HackerNews at time of edit), so yeah, media and information issues.)

Because of shitty broken social systems, the news of... (read more)

Er, why not? Certainly continued life is preferable to death, but it's not a terminal value, is it?
In my value system, people should be able to achieve much more alive than dead. One's own death should not be more effective at reaching terminal values even if life isn't a terminal value. My value system also says people should have as much time as they want to achieve what they want to achieve, up to and including infinity(ies) if any such quantities exist. And on top of that: For me, "life" is a terminal value. Each human mind forever lost substracts large amounts of points from the total potential utility I compute from possible futures of the universe.
While I agree that it is suboptimal (and tragic), his death may save/extend more lives. The effect seems to be making more information (especially scientific information) freely accessible, which in turn seems likely to result in more innovation and better access to treatments as they are developed.
Indeed. That's the source of my frustration and anger/fury*. It feels like saving lives should be what saves more lives, not the other way around. Stupid humans and stupid reality. * (I've never noticed any personal distinction of anger and fury as two distinct qualitative feelings, other than the respective absence or presence of a "target of" referent and that 'fury' usually means more intense than angry).

Stigmatizing depression is bad. Stigmatizing suicide is probably good, and I'm worried by the posthumous status boost Aaron is getting. More thoughts on this

Even Tim Berners-Lee weighs in:

Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.

A eulogy by Cory Doctorow is up at BoingBoing.

Apparently, his (heroic) actions may not even have been illegal. Stupid ***** legal system.

The guy hired by the defense says he's innocent. This is not surprising, but not particularly probative. The feds have had some troubles, for sure. But that doesn't mean they acted badly in this particular case. I'm not talking about whether this was good prosecutorial judgment; that's a much longer discussion. But did they prosecute a guy who committed the crimes charged? I think so. Professor Orin Kerr, arguably the number one guy in computer crimes - and one of the lawyers for Lori Drew for whom he worked pro bono - says these were pretty clearly crimes. Swartz' friend (and lawprof and sometime legal advisor) Larry Lessig - who has blasted the prosecution for overzealousness - acknowledges that Swartz' activities regarding JSTOR were wrong, and seemed to imply they were legal wrongs. Outside of my main point, it's a tragedy that Swartz is dead. His brilliance is cut short, and it sucks.

First post, though long time lurker. One thing that has been bothering me about this: Aaron was familiar with the methods. He was a member of this community. He had a brilliant mind. How was he willing to take this action? I find myself confused, for these seem to be completely contradictory facts.

As someone with a history of mental illness, I have found certain comfort in rationality. Using the tools of rationality, I believed I've been able to notice when my thinking starts to go wonky and depression begins to kick in, and I'm able to take action ... (read more)

I found this Hacker News comment pretty inspiring... it's amazing how much he was able to accomplish, especially considering he was only 26.

Reading more about the circumstances of Aaron's suicide has led me to be quite upset with certain individuals who decided to prosecute him anyway, despite JSTOR dropping their suit and convincing others to do the same. For shame.


I'm saddened he no longer though his life worth living, I hope the remaining people's lives can be made better, it was very generous of him to make efforts to that end.

So I occasionally come across posts comparing the cases of Aaron Swartz and Amanda Todd: both bullied for years and eventually committing suicide after making a less-than-prudent decision at some point in their lives. On the face of it, it seems silly to compare a fighter for freedom of information and against censorship with a naive young girl talked into lifting her top on camera. However, the actual impact of their suicides may well be comparable if the legal system and public perceptions are affected as a result. Is there something to this, or is it just a standard accidental pattern matching?

Another petition: To

Investigate the possible abuse of power by US District Attorney Carmen Ortiz and others in the Aaron Swartz case.

For downloading academic journal articles, Aaron Swartz faced criminal charges that (if he won) at best would have cost him $1 million in legal fees, and (if he lost) at worst could have cost him $4 million more in fines and up to 50 years in prison[1]. Even if he were guilty -- and it is not clear that he was[2] -- such absurdly harsh prosecution is not justice.

A bully whose victim is driven to suicide is not solely respo

... (read more)

It should have been me. He was doing more for the world than most people ever will and he died when my selfish lazy ass survived. I'm a fucking moron so I didn't notice the friction between the rope and the anchor and it broke and I landed on my ass, but he wasn't a fucking moron, he could see that kind of thing and now he's dead. Fucking hell, why couldn't it just have been me instead of him?

The universe doesn't offer that sort of trade.

I am at a loss for words. I really, really want to say something helpful, but I don't know how. Please, please stop thinking that way! If only I could hug you IRL, I would.

Unless you have access to a time machine, such measurement is probably a bad idea, if only for mental health reasons. As someone who's name I forget once said, suicide is catching.


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