Raw thoughts from Alex Dong

Soulmate lost. RIP Aaron Swartz.

So it is true.  Aaron has killed himself.  That sucks.  I tried very hard not to cry but it hurts me deeply.

I never had a chance to meet him in person but over the years, I get to “meet” him via his work.  I’ve always been surprised that such a prodigy actually exists among us. I’ve also had this weird feeling that he won’t die of age.

Aaron’s code is a beautiful example of minimalism. Around 2006, I remember trying really hard to beat his abstraction of a python wrapper for db operations in web/db.py. I gave up after two weeks of attempts and reached a conclusion that he has achieved a perfect balance of just enough function. The whole thing is short, logic and beautiful. Like a poem. You can’t take anything away from it.  He was 18 years old by then.

Aaron’s work is like that too.  Reddit was a good example of that where you can get raw thoughts and insightful discussions without worrying too much of format and etiquette. His less known work of Jottit is actually more impressive.  It’s a failed attempt to build a minimal website where one can  publish raw ideas quick and easy. I had wanted to build a site like that but Aaron built exactly what I had in mind with a crispy clarity of purpose.  I named this blog “Raw thoughts from Alex Dong” after him as well.  A place to exchange ideas without all the fluffy, airy, wishy-washing bullshit.

A friend who used to work in a suicide help centre told me that, to many people, suicide is a way of revenge. It’s one’s last attempt to bet everything on this final attack.  I guess what Aaron is attacking is not only the legal case itself. But the cruel reality of this world.  Where an idealistic will eventually bump into layers and layers of lies; the ignorance of the general public; cold face from people who have already taken the pill and given up.  The more prodigious you are, the harder you get hit on the head.  Everyone has been saying how great you are and what a promising career you have in front of you. Then bump! Out of blue, you realise you are alone. Fighting hopeless without seeing the light.   Aaron has been so young yet so successful that when the harsh of the reality raised its ugly head right in front of him, he chose to keep attacking and attacking. Wish that he could win. He bet his most precious asset, his life, on this final attack.   But he has lost. He failed to find out the right tactic.  I worry that his death is futile. I worry that the world will soon move on with all the weekend entertainment, I worry that his cause will be forgotten.

We programmers, with our new found power, are more likely to be idealistic about things. If something doesn’t make sense, sure it should and can be fixed. The only problem is how long the code-debug cycle runs.  We believe that if only we can express our thoughts clearer, we could make a case and win. Then we would be busy moving to the next thing.   Yet the world moves painfully slowly. Most status quo disappears when they die of age.  This is a reality that’s just not compatible with programmer’s view.

I have wished that Aaron would be like Steve Jobs.  Learn the ways to make compromises. Put his head down and work on something that’s hard. Then eventually change the world for the better.  Move humanity one step forward.   Before Steve Jobs, not many people in valley gives a shit about design, aesthetics. It’s about tech, someone has told me.  After Steve Jobs, everyone suddenly starts to talk about “beautiful”.

To me, Aaron’s death is a reminder to the rest of us idealistic programmers.  It told us loud and clear that we have to pick a battle that worth fighting for and be prepared for the hard, long, lonely journey. And hopefully come out from the other end knowing that we’ve tried our best and we have not wasted our talent and live.  We can finally rest in peace.

Bye, Aaron.