Meeting Aaron Swartz

By now, quite a few people know who Aaron Swartz was. It’s a shame that the world has only become acquainted with this brilliant young man because of what happened on January 11th of this year. Aaron took his own life after the stress of multiple felony indictments became too much. Aaron’s crime was downloading academic journal articles from a database that only academics were meant to access. His principles led him to want to share these terabytes of knowledge with the world rather than keep them locked up for commercial exploitation. Yes, you could say he was idealistic, and rash. But his life is being widely remembered and his influence being felt much more strongly now. After reading this lengthy New Yorker profile by Larissa MacFarquhar, I thought I should put up my much more innocent remembrances of meeting Aaron.

It was as the South by Southwest Interactive conference in 2003, long before he had turned his intelligence away from simple programming to more political pursuits. And, sadly for me, this was the only time I met him, but he made an impression, on me and on my crowd of online friends, many of whom have gone on to shape the Internet in one way or another. Here’s an excerpt from my post-conference diary:

Wednesday March 12, 2003

A highlight of this year’s conference was the presence of the wee Aaron Swartz ( He’s 16, but two years ago formulated what became RSS 1.0 and he’s working with Lawrence Lessig on Creative Commons. Obviously, this kid will buy and sell the rest of us in just a handful of years. But the funny thing is that every time someone discussed him, they gave the universal hand signal: holding the palm down and waving it back and forth about four feet off the ground. I did it myself last night at Castle Hill and Brad and Mike just cracked up. Then we did a whole bunch of jokes about Lessig dressing the kid up like Mickey Mouse and taking him to court where he’d plead “Free the Mouse”! I love geek jokes. I also said I was going to Photoshop a picture of The White Stripes with Ben and Mena Trott’s faces pasted on. The reason was actually due to a post on Aaron Swartz’s weblog. He said that there were cracks that Ben and Mena weren’t married but were actually siblings, because no one had ever seen them kiss. The White Stripes pass themselves off as brother and sister but were once actually married to each other. Not sure how many other people would get it, but I think it’s funny. There could be lots of Photoshop fun. I think a photo of Mickey Mouse could have wee Aaron’s face pasted on. Maybe I’ll post them to SXSWBlog anonymously.

Another funny thing about Aaron was that due to his age, he couldn’t check into the hotel room he’d booked online. Eventually he went to stay with Cory Doctorow at his hotel, but before that Min Jung took him up to her room to leave his bag, and while up there, she mixed some drinks from some booze she’d brought with her. Since she needed help carrying them, wee Aaron was recruited. She took a lot of flak for basically corrupting the lad.

I remember all of this with a rueful smile. A line from Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile resonated with me: “Despite his public presence, he was small and frail and shy and often sick, and people wanted to protect him. He was loved intensely, as a child is loved.” Even in his brief time among us at SxSW 2003, you could sense the tragic truth in those words.

I would post those Mickey Mouse Aaron Swartz Photoshopped pictures here, except of course that I never made them. For all of our joking around, I didn’t want to do anything to hurt his feelings. Or, despite the fact that he might not have even remembered meeting me, to make him think less of me.

Failed Child Prodigy

That was my semi-ironic title for the piece the Globe and Mail published on February 8, 2013 on the back page of the Facts and Arguments section. At least that’s where I think it appeared. I was out of the country and only saw the online version. They changed my self-deprecating title to the more desperate sounding headline “I’m a reading prodigy, but now I’m falling behind in life.” Wow, that really sounds dire. Still, I’m proud of the piece, although I was asked to add 200 words at the last minute, while Brooke and I were on holiday in southern California. I hope you can’t see where the padding is. This is not the best thing I’ve ever written, but I’m still proud that it was published in “Canada’s National Newspaper.”

I was also delighted to receive some fan mail the other day. One piece was a card from the 91-year-old patriarch of the Cusimano family, still living in the same house on Cassandra Boulevard, and who sent me two photos of his family: one from the 1960s, roughly around the time they appear in my piece, and another of the extended family in the present day. The other piece of fan mail was from a septuagenarian from BC who encouraged me to remain a free spirit, to live my life to the fullest and to regret nothing. What amazing gifts! Here’s the piece as it appeared:

American abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass famously said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

I have not found that to be the case.

As a child, I was a bit of a celebrity.

When I was three, I found my way to the local elementary school and asked to be let in. They told me I was too young, but, after telephoning my mother, allowed me to sit in on their kindergarten class for the day.

I found it a bit slow.

You see, by the age of three, I had already taught myself to read.

I am not sure how I accomplished it.

We had a lot of books lying around, but the only one I can remember now is Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever.

By the time I had started school for real, it was hard to keep my ability a secret.

One time, on the way to school, I was stopped by a couple of the rough-and-tumble Cusimano boys.

One of them had a paper route and rode a special bicycle with a big metal container on the front full of newspapers.

I recall them pulling one out and asking me to read the headline aloud, and then, amazed, the rest of the article.

Early in my school career, I was asked to come to the principal’s office – not because of any misbehaviour, but to demonstrate my gift.

Mr. Malcolm took a book, seemingly at random, from his office bookshelf and asked me to open it to any page and begin reading.

A few days later, I found myself moving from Grade 1 to Grade 2, right in the middle of the school year.

Looking back at my report cards, I find it hard not to laugh.

My Grade 1 teacher called me bright and inquisitive.

But by the end of the year, my Grade 2 teacher had lamented that I was immature and that some of my stories were “silly.” I was seven at the time.

Classroom reading exercises in the 1970s involved ubiquitous boxes of SRA cards.

This ingenious system made learning a game, allowing individual students to progress through each of the dozen or so colour-coded levels independently.

We’d read a story contained on a large card and then answer questions to test our comprehension of what we had just read.

Of course, because I already knew how to read, this stuff was easy and fun for me.

We also had the Scholastic book club, through which we could order books at school and have them delivered to our classrooms each month.

I was very glad to discover that this is still going strong.

I also loved when our teachers would read books aloud to us.

I can sometimes still hear the voice of Mrs. West in my head whenever I read one of my favourites, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

I continued to excel in school and, unbeknownst to me then, my parents rejected the school’s advice to skip me another year after Grade 6.

They were concerned about my social development, and it turns out they were right.

By Grade 8, I was tired of being called a “brain” and helping everyone else with their homework.

I wanted to be accepted, but I didn’t want to stand out.

My report card that year warned that I appeared to be holding myself back.

I got a further comeuppance in high school, where it quickly became apparent that math and science were not my strong suits.

My childhood ambitions of becoming a surgeon or a biologist started to fade.

But so what? I could do anything, couldn’t I? And there’s the rub.

If anything, I think being able to read from such an early age spoiled me.

Having the world open up through books might seem like a wonderful thing, and when I was a child, it was.

But as I grew up, and continued to feel like the world was forever opening up to me, at least through books, I became more and more restless.

I have been part of the work force now for more than 30 years, starting with my first summer job selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door.

But I’ve never held a job longer than four years, and any grand idea of building a career, never mind a vocation, has long since evaporated.

From time to time I blame the new economy, or the Internet, or the rise of unpaid internships.

But the truth I cannot avoid is that I think I’ve always just been an intellectual nomad.

I have been spoiled by reading.

My head has been filled from toddlerhood onward with the magic of worlds created by words.

To this day, I cling to the illusion that if I am sufficiently interested in a subject, I can make a career there.

But the truth is that I am still the daydreamer I was as a child.

Back then, they thought I was just bored with the standard curriculum.

Perhaps it was simply that the real world could never compete with the world I found in books.

Perhaps a better quotation about reading would be George Bernard Shaw’s, about the slightly ridiculous “hero” of Cervantes’s novel: “Reading made Don Quixote a gentleman, but believing what he read made him mad.”

Oh, and the Cusimano boys? All doctors and lawyers. One is even, if you can believe it, a brain surgeon.

Report Card for 2012

Overall Grade: C+

Borrowing a very cool idea from the smarties over at Hazlitt, I thought I’d write up a (hopefully not-too-long-or-maudlin) summary of my own 2012. It’s always good to take stock, and looking back is as important to me as looking ahead, so here goes nothin’.

I’ve already written about my suspicion that years that end in 2 or 7 are bound to be momentous for me, and I wasn’t wrong about 2012.

Things started off normally. In October of 2011, I’d gone back to work for the wine importing company I’d been with from 2003-2007. They were having a whole new web site built and needed someone to manage the project and do some content stuff. It was meant to be a six-month contract ending in April. But lots of internal company stuff was happening (or more accurately, not happening), which delayed the site launch until July. Even then, the main reason for the redesign, e-commerce, was not ready. I stayed until the end of the year, in the end handing off my position to someone else. Fingers crossed, e-commerce is set to launch in the next little while…

I left for the same reason that getting back together with an old girlfriend is a bad idea. The comfort is nice for a while, but then you remember why you broke up the first time. Besides, I’d been making noises the whole time about how I wanted to go freelance, set my own hours, work from home, blah blah.

So on the work front, 2012 was a year spent marking time, waiting for the right combination of circumstances to launch myself as a freelance dynamo. January 1st is a good time for launching things, right?

Truthfully, the last third of the year sucked for another reason. In September, my father was hospitalized with difficulty breathing while on holiday in Ireland. Brooke and I were scheduled to travel to Belgium and Luxembourg during the same time, so we were able to re-route and see him in Dublin for a weekend. He seemed to be making a great recovery, so we finished the rest of our European vacation and went home. For the next couple of weeks, I spent lots of time with Dad, making appointments for him to see specialists and making sure he was sticking to his nicotine patch regime. And then suddenly he died.

We were close, but I don’t think we really understood each other. My mother died when I was in my early 20s, and as an only child, I worked hard to build a relationship with my dad where none had really existed. Though I was never completely successful, we loved each other. We even liked each other, though as he got older, his stubbornness and constrained life and world view annoyed me. My sadness seems to have turned pretty quickly to a kind of resentment, not of him exactly, but of all the administrivia and physical labour involved in what feels like nothing more than erasing all traces of his presence in the world.

Things Brooke and I have avoided in our own lives (mortgage, car and pet ownership) are now part of the burden of things I have to sort out. My first month or more of “freelance” life will most likely be spent working as a freelance cleaner, mover, and filler of forms.

Brooke and I celebrated ten years of marriage (and 15 as a couple) in October. It’s hard to believe. We may have one of the most low-maintenance relationships I’ve ever witnessed. We’re not without our issues, but I’d say that our default status is “contentment.” I hope I’m not just speaking for myself.

As usual, I started far more things than I could finish in 2012, but a few of them are worth noting.

Shorts That Are Not Pants is a quarterly screening series for short films that officially kicked off last January. We have hosted four screenings so far, three at the NFB Mediatheque (now closed, sadly) and one at the Carlton Cinemas. PLUG: join us on Thursday January 17th at 7pm at the Carlton as we kick off our second year!

I also began writing for the excellent Short of the Week, which features excellent short films available online. Though my contributions there this year have been sparse, I’m proud of them and honoured to be part of a great team of writers and curators.

I wrote far less than I would have liked here on my “personal” blog and on Toronto Screen Shots, my general film blog, but I’m not going to beat myself up over it. My book/article/web project on Toronto art-rockers Max Webster has also gone dormant, but I’m not giving up on it.

I want 2013 to be full of great moments. I want to capture more of my life in words, and I want to spend more and better time with those I love (and that’s all of you, by the way). As always, I want to express myself more clearly and openly with people. Each day, I want to articulate to myself what I want out of life and pursue it without fear of failure.

P.S. When I started writing this, I wanted it to be more in the style of some of those Hazlitt staffers, recounting kooky anecdotes from my year. That may have to wait for another post, I guess.

Best Films of 2012

It’s almost impossible for me to make lists, and yet I compulsively am drawn to making them, or reading other people’s. This is especially true with film, where for me the pleasures of discovery outweigh any sense of satisfaction of “keeping up” with all the new releases. I might have seen about 50 films that were theatrically released this year, which is a tiny fraction of the total, so my list is far from bulletproof. I tend to see a lot of my films at festivals, too, which can skew the experience one way or the other. With all that as prologue, here are my top ten films of the year:

The Master - Paul Thomas Anderson
Only The Young - Elizabeth Mims and Jason TippetThe Imposter - Bart Layton
Moonrise Kingdom - Wes AndersonLooper - Rian JohnsonBernie - Richard Linklater
Indie Game: The Movie - Lisanne Pajot and James SwirskyTchoupitoulas - Bill Ross and Turner RossSound of My Voice - Zal BatmanglijBeasts of the Southern Wild - Benh Zeitlin

  1. The Master (Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)
  2. Only The Young (Dirs: Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet)
  3. The Imposter (Dir: Bart Layton)
  4. Moonrise Kingdom (Dir: Wes Anderson)
  5. Looper (Dir: Rian Johnson)
  6. Bernie (Dir: Richard Linklater)
  7. Indie Game: The Movie (Dirs: Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky)
  8. Tchoupitoulas (Dirs: Bill Ross and Turner Ross)
  9. Sound of My Voice (Dir: Zal Batmanglij)
  10. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dir: Benh Zeitlin)

And because I’m such a huge fan of documentary film, here is the list of top ten docs:

  1. Only The Young (Dirs: Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet)
  2. The Imposter (Dir: Bart Layton)
  3. Indie Game: The Movie (Dirs: Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky)
  4. Tchoupitoulas (Dirs: Bill Ross and Turner Ross)
  5. The House I Live In (Dir: Eugene Jarecki)
  6. ¡Vivan las Antipodas! (Dir: Victor Kossakovsky)
  7. Room 237 (Dir: Rodney Ascher)
  8. Off Label (Dirs: Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher)
  9. The Ambassador (Dir: Mads Brügger)
  10. The World Before Her (Dir: Nisha Pahuja)

Best Music of 2012

I’m realizing that I haven’t done this for a few years now. Although I love music, I find that it takes longer to absorb a new “release” than my perma-shuffling iPod habits can provide, and so I always find myself scrambling during the month of December to attempt some kind of catching up. Ludicrous, of course, when there are thousands of new bands releasing music each year. So the usual disclaimer applies: this is stuff I just happened to buy/download/hear and is in no way meant to be comprehensive.

Beach House - Bloom
DIIV - OshinWild Nothing - Nocturne
Jim Guthrie - Indie Game: The Movie (Soundtrack)Grimes - VisionsDivine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits
Now, Now - ThreadsEternal Summers - Correct BehaviorLower Dens - NootropicsJapandroids - Celebration Rock

In list form, if you’re not visually inclined:

  1. Beach House – Bloom
  2. DIIV – Oshin
  3. Wild Nothing – Nocturne
  4. Jim Guthrie – Indie Game: The Movie (Soundtrack)
  5. Grimes – Visions
  6. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
  7. Now, Now – Threads
  8. Eternal Summers – Correct Behavior
  9. Lower Dens – Nootropics
  10. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Honourable Mentions:

  • Bill Fay – Life is People
  • Borko – Born to Be Free
  • Bloc Party – Four
  • Four Tet – Pink

Just for fun, here are some of my previous lists:

How about you? What were some of your favourites?