Three announcements

1. As many of you probably know, this week my EECS colleague Hal Abelson released his 180-page report on MIT’s involvement in the Aaron Swartz case.  I read the whole thing, and I recommend it if you have any interest in the case.  My take is that, far from being the “whitewash” that some people described it as, the report (if you delve into it) clearly and eloquently explains how MIT failed to live up to its own standards, even as it formally followed the rules.  The central insight here is that the world expects MIT to behave, not like some other organization would behave if someone hid a laptop in its supply closet to download the whole JSTOR database, insulted and then tried to flee from its security officers when questioned, etc. etc., but rather with perspective and imagination—worrying less about the security of its facilities than about the future of the world.  People expect MIT, of all places, to realize that the sorts of people who pull these sorts of shenanigans in their twenties sometimes become Steve Jobs or Richard Feynman (or for that matter, MIT professor Robert Morris) later in their lives, and therefore to speak up in their defense.  In retrospect, I wish Swartz’s arrest had sparked a debate about the wider issues among MIT’s students, faculty, and staff.  I think it’s likely that such a debate would have led to pressure on the administration to issue a statement in Swartz’s support.  As it was (and as I pointed out in this interview), most people at MIT, even if they’d read about the arrest, weren’t even aware of the issue’s continued existence, let alone of MIT’s continued role in it, until after Swartz had already committed suicide.  For the MIT community—which includes some prominent supporters of open access—to have played such a passive role is one of the many tragedies that’s obvious with hindsight.

2. Shafi Goldwasser has asked me to announce that the fifth Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science (ITCS) conference will be held in Princeton, a town technically in New Jersey, on January 12-14, 2014.  Here’s the conference website; if you want to submit a paper, the deadline is coming up soon, on Thursday, August 22.

3. As the summer winds to a close, I’m proud to announce my main goals for the upcoming academic year.  Those goals are the following:

(a) Take care of Lily.

(b) Finish writing up old papers.

It feels liberating to have no higher aspirations for an entire year—and for the aspirations I have to seem so modest and so achievable.  On the other hand, it will be all the more embarrassing if I fail to achieve even these goals.

48 Responses to “Three announcements”

  1. Bram Cohen Says:

    Usually when I set a goal for myself of finishing up old stuff I get distracting by coming up with new stuff.

  2. Scott Says:

    Bram: Yes, and I’m going to try hard to escape that! Must … avoid … all … new … ideas …

  3. Jay Says:

    (1) make me sick. :(

  4. Sniffnoy Says:

    But Scott! If you finish writing up old papers, you’ll have to enter into a sustained dialogue about the flawed presuppositions underlying empirical positivism!

  5. Scott Says:

    Sniffnoy: Good point! Because of that, I’ll make sure to leave at least 2 or 3 papers still on the backlog at the end of the year. It won’t be hard.

  6. Rahul Says:

    Regarding the Hal Abelson report: It’s a well drafted report. I just wish it was shorter.

    Eloquence and clarity are amplified by brevity but that seems a waning art today. I sorely wish those 108 pages came with something like a 2-page summary.

    I don’t think it is a whitewash per se, but the length may give that impression to some. I tried to assiduously plod through those 108 pages and while they do a great job documenting the factual nitty gritties, and the day to day evolution of the Aaron Swartz story, what I found lacking was a distillation of the larger picture.

    Perhaps the fault lies not with Hal Abelson: maybe he was constrained by the terms of reference of his mission.

  7. Dana Says:

    The report DOES have a short summary that explains what happened and includes the main findings! It’s on pages 11-15.

  8. “It’s easier to bleed than sweat, Mr. Motes.” « Pink Iguana Says:

    […] Aaronson, Shtetl-Optimized, Three announcements, here. Pointer to Abelson’s report on Aaron Swartz case and a Ptown conference in […]

  9. Rahul Says:


    Yes, it does have that “Introduction” section but it’s again (at least in my view) a too factual snapshot of events. My notion of a summary was something more analytic, more advisory, an outline of what did go wrong (if anything) and how to fix systems or make changes. Or alternatively defending the way the system worked.

    There is indeed a role for a factual documentation, but somehow 80% of the relevant facts were already known through prior coverage. Was there anything surprising that you (or Scott) learnt from reading this report that you didn’t know before?

    A report taking 6 months, I was hoping had more meat, more concrete recommendations or even a steadfast defense of status quo.

    To be clear, I don’t blame Abelson. As he correctly writes “It was not part of our charge in this review to draw conclusions, but rather to determine
    facts and to consider what can be learned from this tragedy”

    I feel President Reif should have given them a broader mandate.

  10. Dana Says:

    Rahul #9:

    The introduction section I cited ends (point 4 on page 14) with a critical analysis of MIT’s administration and community:

    “MIT decision-makers did not inquire into the details of the charges until a year after the indictment, and did not form an opinion about their merits…. Among the factors not considered were that the defendant was an accomplished and well-known contributor to Internet technology; that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is a poorly drafted and questionable criminal law as applied to modern computing…; and that the United States government
    was pursuing an overtly aggressive prosecution.”

    “Before Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the MIT community paid scant attention to the matter, other than during the period
    immediately following his arrest. Few students, faculty, or alumni expressed concerns to the administration.”

    “MIT’s position may have been prudent, but it did not duly
    take into account the wider background of information policy against which the prosecution played out and in which
    MIT people have traditionally been passionate leaders.”

    I learned a lot from the report. I (and — as became evident from discussions at MIT — most people at MIT) simply did not know the facts of the case beyond the most basic ones.

    The purpose of the report was to first clarify the facts, then *start* a critical discussion at MIT.

    MIT has a strong culture of critical discussions, and in the past reports led to significant changes in the way MIT operates. One example is the 1999 report on the status of women faculty at MIT that demonstrated significant biases against women faculty. That report led to a huge change at MIT – so significant that as a woman faculty 10+ years later I think of MIT as a welcoming, pleasant, place.

  11. Rahul Says:


    Fair enough. I hope things will change again this time. You, being an insider, obviously have a much better feel for the MIT-way than I can have.

    If there is ever a next time. let’s hope it won’t end in a tragedy like this one. That will then have been worth it. In the years to come, let’s also hope we transition to a more open framework of articles and journals.

  12. Peter w. Shor Says:

    Rahul: if you’re looking for a big picture of how MIT’s actions affected the Swartz case, you should also look at pages 80-88 of the report.

  13. Douglas Knight Says:

    Given that MIT is obstructing FOIA, why should we believe it wants us to know what happened?

  14. joe Says:

    Hey Scott,

    There was a paper from Dan Lidar’s group posted on the arXiv last week about error correction in the D-Wave machine (arXiv:1307.8190). I’m sure the world would like some commentary on this from you once you’ve had a chance to read it.

    - joe

  15. John Sidles Says:

    In regard to joe’s comment #14 above, the preprint of Lidar et al. (arXiv:1307.8190) embraces a definition “quantum error correction” that is sufficiently relaxed as to (seemingly?) sacrifice computational universality.

    Not everyone will agree that the definition of “quantum error correction” should be so relaxed. Cogent reasons for not relaxing the fundamental definitions associated to quantum computing were expressed by Scott (in comment #252 of D-Wave: Truth finally starts to emerge)

    Scott avers  “For me personally, the central question is whether or not I can at least see a “straight path forward” to getting an asymptotic speedup over any possible classical algorithm, under mathematical conjectures that I believe, and assuming quantum mechanics continues to be valid.”

    In a similar vein, Henning Dekant posted (comment #384 in the same thread):

    Henning avers  “I think there needs to be a baseline definition of what makes QC, and then on top of that one can make the point that not all QC is created equal.”

    In 2002 and 2004, however, the QIST technology experts panel (TEP) advanced opposing arguments (that are summarized in comment #392) as follows:

    “It is too soon to attempt to identify a smaller number of potential ‘winners’ […] Considerable evolution of and hybridization between the various approaches has already taken place and should be expected to continue in the future, with some existing approaches being superseded by even more promising ones.”

    Conclusion  The DWAVE/Lidar preprint (arXiv:1307.8190) challenges the quantum computing community to revise the definitions that are associated to fundamental questions like “What is quantum computing? What is quantum error correction?”

    Prediction  For the next generation of STEM researchers, DWAVE’s “liberal” quantum adaptivism will provide a more fertile ground for fundamental research advances than “conservative” strict quantum constructionism.

    That is why DWAVE’s gonna win this one. :)

  16. Scott Says:

    Douglas Knight #13: From what little I know about it, MIT’s main concern is to redact the names of the individuals who were involved in the case. The reason is that those who have been connected by name to the case (even people like Hal Abelson, who spent 6 months writing a report about how to prevent this kind of thing from happening again), have been subject to a campaign of hate mail and death threats.

  17. Scott Says:

    Joe #14: OK, but I have a tip that there’s some even bigger D-Wave news that will be coming out in the next month or two … so why don’t I wait for that before doing another D-Wave post.

  18. Somebody Famous Says:

    Goal (a) isn’t modest and isn’t as easy as you make it seem with “even” and “no higher” etc. :)

  19. Scott Says:

    Someday Famous #18: Yes, but the kind of difficulty is fundamentally different from that of (say) research or writing, where there’s often a combinatorial explosion of possible paths to follow, and you have no idea which one is correct. If Lily is crying, then there are only O(1) possibilities: either she needs a diaper change, or she wants to sleep, or she wants to breastfeed or eat pureed bananas, or she’s bored and wants to be carried around or play peekaboo, or she has teething pain and wants to chomp something, or not even she has any clue why she’s crying. So one can simply do exhaustive enumeration.

  20. Jay Says:

    Still crying… maybe she doesn’t like the principle of exhaustive enumeration?

  21. Douglas Knight Says:

    Scott, I’m aware that MIT has an excuse for its actions; indeed, one needs an excuse to file a motion. But why do you believe their excuse? The link I provided claims that it not just false, but transparent.

    First of all, FOIA documents are supposed to already redact third party names. Do you have any reason to believe that they fail to do so?

    Second, Poulsen claims that third parties never intervene in FOIA requests. In particular, this is evidence of the redactors’ competence.

  22. John Sidles Says:

    Scott posts (#16)  “I have a tip that there’s some even bigger D-Wave news that will be coming out in the next month or two.”

    New that may possibly relate (directly or indirectly) to this week’s IARPA solicitation (that a Google Search finds as “IARPA-BAA-13-05″):

    Cryogenic Computing Complexity (C3) Program
    Solicitation Number: IARPA-BAA-13-05
    Agency: Office of the Director of National Intelligence
    Office: Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity

    The goal of the C3 program is to demonstrate a small-scale computer based on superconducting logic and cryogenic memory that is energy-efficient, scalable, and able to solve interesting problems. The current BAA is for only phase 1 of the program, to develop the technologies required to demonstrate the value of superconducting computing.

    Contracting Office Address:
    Office of the Director of National Intelligence
    Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity
    Washington, District of Columbia 20511
    United States


    And I for one welcome our Kähler-coherent affine-pullback DWAVE-technology overlords! :)

  23. Anonymous Says:

    There seems to be a sort of blind and (in my opinion) unwarranted anger towards MIT from a small but vocal subset of the relevant community in the Swartz case. What I don’t understand is: why should we be expecting anything *other* than a factual representation of the evidence in this report, and why is a thorough factual representation simply a “whitewash”? That is, why is it implicitly expected that MIT should actually be issuing a deferential apology to the increasingly self-righteous community supporting Swartz?

    Or rather, should the discussion at MIT really be about how to handle cases like Swartz’s in the future, or should it be about how to start an effective conversation with government and institutions toward better technology law and open science? (That is what I would like to see.)

  24. Jay Says:

    Anon #23, I was tempted to make a similar point, but the situation indicated by Douglas Knight in #13 is disturbing.

  25. Peter w. Shor Says:

    Jay #24: There apparently have been cases where third parties have sued about FOIA requests before. And given that MIT has had fake bomb threats and hate mail over the Aaron Swartz case, it makes sense to keep the name of anybody connected with it from the public.

  26. Jay Says:

    Peter #25,

    I wouldn’t be annoyed by MIT being first to sue about FOIA request, conditionned there’s a good reason to do so. Of course protecting individuals from some serious threat counts as a good reason.

    However, fake bombs and hate mails were known to Abelson and al., who still identify individuals in their report (“generally” by role or position rather than by name, but finding names from role or position is usually not that hard).

  27. Douglas Knight Says:

    It’s true that this is not the first third-party FOIA suit, but the vast majority of them are filed under the trade secret exemption, where it is reasonable to expect disagreement between the government and the third party over what constitutes a trade secret.

    If I read it correctly, only once has there been a third party suit asking for the redaction of third party names. But that suit correctly predicted that the government was planning on not redacting such names.

  28. Anonymous Says:

    FOIA or not, my questions still stand, and if anyone has answers I’d like to hear them.

    -Anonymous #23

    (Actually a third question comes to mind: who is this nebulous “MIT”? Why is it that we are all “MIT” when some great discovery happens, but then MIT becomes The Man in cases like this? Is MIT Abelson? Grimson? Reif? Which one of these people is really in a position to hide things from e.g. the people in CSAIL, many of whom are close enough to them to probably find out the truth and expose it?)

  29. Anonymous Says:

    Also (unrelatedly) regarding Robert Morris, the wikipedia article clearly states that he was convicted, sentenced to probation and community service, and his appeal was rejected.

    Also (somewhat relatedly) to Scott, the issues you point out regarding the passiveness of the community at the time of the arrest, I think, are only symptoms of a larger attitude of passiveness and unwillingness to take action in general. Many have been quick to point out MIT’s inaction without including themselves in the blame. Many discuss very grand ideas on csail-related without actually taking steps to enact them, especially when they do not involve a new paper. (Not all, but perhaps a majority.)

  30. Rahul Says:

    “Or rather, should the discussion at MIT really be about how to handle cases like Swartz’s in the future, or should it be about how to start an effective conversation with government and institutions toward better technology law and open science? “

    Both, I think. Unless we are willing to say things took their logical path in the Swartz case, and if something similar were to recur we are fine with the same consequences.

    I don’t think anyone is willing to take this stand. So, might as well formulate concrete changes and reccomendations as to what should be done differently in future by various MIT stakeholders rather than hide behind the vagueness of “starting conversations”.

  31. Peter W. Shor Says:

    Having read the report, I think the big problems with the Swartz case are (1) nobody was paying any attention to it at MIT and (2) the “neutral” strategy of only do things when you are presented with a court order or subpoena actually favors the prosecution. But I don’t see any indications from the report that the situation in Swartz’s case would have been much better for him if MIT had acted to support him.

  32. John Sidles Says:

    Peter W. Shor says: “I don’t see any indications from the report that the situation in Swartz’s case would have been much better for him if MIT had acted to support him.”
    Peter, isn’t that a sufficiently restricted point-of-view, as to be legally defensible yet socially indefensible?

    It is well to reflect that, by the legal-outcome measure, Rosa Parks lost to the City of Montgomery, Alabama. And John Thomas Scopes lost to the State of Tennessee. And Oliver Brown et al. lost (prior to appeal) to the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

    Legally those cases were futile. Socially we may be glad for the results of the dialog that their cases inspired.

    That is why it is regrettable (in one construction) that the MIT community did not recognize its opportunity, or else it is regrettable (in an alternative construction) that the MIT community declined to accept its responsibility, to foster a comparable dialog in the Aaron Swartz case, even if (as you say) the legal outcome might not have been altered thereby.

  33. Rahul Says:

    Peter W. Shor #31:

    But I don’t see any indications from the report that the situation in Swartz’s case would have been much better for him if MIT had acted to support him.

    I’m no lawyer, but say, had MIT decided to file an amicus curiæ brief somewhat sympathetic to what Swartz did; would that not have made the prosecution’s job much harder?

    Maybe to the point they DA may not have decided to go ahead or at least have reduced the charges substantially?

    Again, I’m no lawyer, so may be I’m totally off base.

  34. Anonymous Says:

    Rahul #30:

    “Unless we are willing to say things took their logical path in the Swartz case, and if something similar were to recur we are fine with the same consequences.”

    I have not read the report cover-to-cover, but I actually do think that things took a quite logical path given a) the case not having much attention at MIT and b) Swartz having committed, in the legal eye, a crime.

    The “consequences” here are magnified by a suicide and the emotions surrounding it. Because we do not know the cause of the suicide, we do not have good reason to believe that a similar case would also lead to such a result (cf. the Robert Morris example).

    There have been other consequences of the Swartz case, which I think could be alleviated in potential future occurrences by a more active conversation with government about science and its boundaries. (Maybe– though given the recent NSA- and FBI-related news, maybe not.) It is not clear, at least to me, that MIT should be doing anything else very differently than what it did as the circumstances stood at the time.

  35. Jay Says:

    Peter, from the report we can read that Swartz’s lawers and father asked for public support from MIT again and again and again and again and again and again. Maybe we should count that as an indication.

  36. Rahul Says:

    Anonymous #33:

    It is not clear, at least to me, that MIT should be doing anything else very differently than what it did as the circumstances stood at the time.

    See, I like that you said that straight, whether I agree with your conclusion or not. I think your point of view is eminently defensible and I’ve met several people who think likewise too.

    I only wish the Report was as clear about what they really think rather than the weak language of “encouraging conversations”.

  37. John Sidles Says:

    The Charges  Members of the jury, what is your verdict in regard to the charges: (1) negligence in regard to the academic duty to foster dialog, and (2) deliberate deprivation of hope to a young researcher.

    The Verdict  The jury of public opinion finds that the MIT academic community, and the MIT corporation that shelters that community, are “guilty” on both counts.


    Post Trial Interview  “The jury of public opinion recognizes that an essential element of Aaron Schwarz’ suicidal despair was not the number and vigor of his accusers, but rather the negligent silence and deliberate inaction of his defenders, which acted to deprive Schwarz of any substantial hope of vindication through appeal.”

  38. Peter w. Shor Says:


    JSTOR publicly supported Aaron Swartz. The prosecution didn’t drop any of the charges which were based only on Aaron’s actions with respect to JSTOR.

    I personally think MIT should have done more to support Aaron, but this doesn’t keep me from getting incredibly angry at the people who are engaging in what appears to me to be magical thinking and saying “If only MIT had said that Aaron was authorized to be on MIT’s network, the prosecution would have dropped all the charges and Aaron would be alive today.” (The clearest objection to this argument is that this would only have affected a few of the charges against Aaron.)

  39. Scott Says:

    The Charges Members of the jury, John Sidles is hereby charged with:
    - Constantly writing as if his own, highly-idiosyncratic opinions constituted some sort of “consensus”—something that an imaginary council of intellectual leaders (or “public opinion”) deliberated about and is now announcing to the world
    - Leaving hundreds of comments that have the external appearance of carefully-reasoned arguments (down to the boldfaced headings, like “Conclusions”), but that sorely lack logical coherence
    - Constant appeals to authority
    - Wild misreadings of unrelated texts to suggest that various authorities (John von Neumann, David Deutsch, etc.) endorse his, Sidles’s, idiosyncratic opinions on subjects about which the authorities never expressed any opinion at all
    - Aggravated presumptuousness

    The Verdict I, the judge, find the defendant guilty on all counts.

    The Sentence John Sidles is hereby banned from Shtetl-Optimized for 3 months. Sidles’s previous 3-month ban was commuted to 2 weeks on the intervention of John Preskill. Unfortunately, upon his release back to this blog, Sidles has shown recidivist behavior, unrepentantly continuing the practices that led to the first ban.

  40. Anonymous Says:

    Rahul #36:

    There is no indication that the authors of the report think anything other than that MIT’s future responsibility is to encourage conversations (which I believe are less “vague” than you suggest) about how future such cases may be treated and, perhaps more importantly, avoided. It’s not Abelson’s or the rest of the authors’ place to express an opinion on behalf of all of MIT because it’s doubtful that everyone had the same opinion regarding MIT’s actions. Yet people wanted that sort of opinion from the report, mainly (I think) so that they could subsequently judge MIT based on that opinion.

    Anyway, bottom line for me is that there are a lot of people who didn’t care about the case when it happened who have decided to call themselves champions of freedom and call MIT an evil institution without actually understanding most of the details of the case, which means they’re probably not up for a reasonable discussion and I won’t try persuading them.

  41. Rahul Says:

    Anonymous #40:

    I absolutely don’t think of MIT as the evil institution here. The fact that they we are having this nuanced discussion is itself a credit to the MIT community. Sorry if I gave that impression.

    OTOH I do see certain lacunae in the Abelson report (and certain strengths too) and I think it’s fair to point both out.

    At some level, this is less (to me) about the specifics of the Swartz case and more about the nature of an effective report for events of this sort.

  42. Rahul Says:

    Peter w. Shor Says: Comment #38

    “JSTOR publicly supported Aaron Swartz. The prosecution didn’t drop any of the charges which were based only on Aaron’s actions with respect to JSTOR.”

    True. Hard to guess how things would have shaped up.

    But I think it’s speculative both ways: We don’t know if MIT’s support would have helped Swartz and we don’t know if wouldn’t.

  43. Rahul Says:

    Scott #39:

    Judge, jury and executioner? :)

  44. jonas Says:

    Re Scott 19: I agree with Somebody Famous. Also, isn’t „So one can simply do exhaustive enumeration” has the same kind of fallacy as when you want to prove that Kolmogorov complexity is recursively computable because you can just try all programs to see which one gives the right output?

  45. Scott Says:

    jonas #44: Well, I think the goal should be defined as stopping the baby from crying, insofar as it’s possible to do so. And if you try all 5 or 6 possibilities (food, diaper, teether, rocking, change of scenery…) and she continues crying, then at least you can be fairly confident that she would’ve continued crying regardless of what you did.

  46. Timothy Gowers Says:

    I would describe writing up old papers as an extremely ambitious goal. I have a stack of old stuff that I ought to have written up ages ago, but I can never bear to do it because there is always something fresh and interesting to think about.

  47. Sunil Kavita Says:

    Yes, as you said above, I am 110% agree with you and very useful information. Really nice and informative for like me student. Thank you!

  48. Michael Says:

    “People expect MIT, … to realize that the sorts of people who pull these sorts of shenanigans …sometimes become Steve Jobs or Richard Feynman … later …, and therefore to speak up in their defense. ”

    Have another think, please. Everyone deserves to be protected from a government and judicial system that is out of control, and forces those suspected of crimes to confess by threatening them with savage punishments – especially those who don’t have the ability or luck to become famous and powerful.

Leave a Reply