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The Robin Hood of Science: The Missing Chapter
The tale of a young man driven to his death for fighting for what is right, and the young woman picking up where he left off.
Content Warning: Contains references to violence, injustice, suicide and material you may find upsetting, you might not want to read this on the bus.
Last week I wrote what has quickly become the most read piece of writing I have ever written. It told the tale of how one researcher — Alexandra Elbakyan — has made nearly every scientific paper ever published available for free online to anyone, anywhere in the world. This is part two, but it’s OK; this is a story that, just like Star Wars, you can read backward.
The moment I started working on this story last October I knew it was a huge story. I knew it deserved to be read not just by the hundreds of thousands of people who are now reading and sharing it. I knew it deserved to be in newspapers around the world.
So I did what any science journalist would do. I pitched it to The New York Times; I pitched it to The Guardian; I pitched it to all the big guns. The response? Crickets. Bizarrely, until the day that I broke the story last week not one publication had ever covered the story of Sci-Hub. Since last week, dozens have.
The only publication that gave any indication of interest happened to be the largest publisher in tech news. For a time things sounded very promising; but discussions eventually broke down when I made it clear that it was impossible for me to convince Alexandra to travel to Europe for a photoshoot. She feared arrest, quite understandably. Discussions reached a deadlock as I was placed under immense pressure to cut the story down, ultimately to less than 250 words, barely a couple of paragraphs.
Apparently the story was not worth being printed on paper without glossy photos of Alexandra herself posing for the camera, as if they were remotely relevant to the story. A story of this complexity simply couldn’t be covered in any meaningful way in 250 words, I argued. That has since proven to be true as vast numbers of people who read the story thought researchers or universities received a portion of the fees paid by the public to read the journals, which contain academic research funded by taxpayers.
This is simply not true. Most of the billions of dollars that are paid every year for access to academic publications are creamed off, directly into the pockets of publishing fat cats and their shareholders. Not a penny of this is paid to a scientist or academic institution. In fact if anything, scientists must pay for their work to be published. Editing, reviewing, production, every stage of the process is carried out by researchers who act as volunteers, independently of journals for the good of science. Every single stage of work paid for by the public purse is farmed out, except the profits, which are sucked up by billion-dollar-per-year corporations.
This is routine; it’s just the way things work today, a sad hangover from a time when print was a finite resource, even though now it is obsolete in the academic world, replaced by digital documents effortlessly transmitted down the telephone line. It is a hangover that benefits and enriches a handful of for-profit corporations that create nothing, at the expense of all of humanity’s access to the wealth of scientific knowledge.
The costs are real. Just yesterday I met a social worker who — now that she’s qualified, now that she’s a “professional” — can no longer access the social work journals she needs to do her job because she is no longer at a university, so now she no longer has an access code. The same is true for doctors, psychologists, neurologists, engineers, botanists, geneticists, chemists, and philosophers around the developing world.
Ultimately, the first publisher I approached with the story, who after a brief discussion I sent the complete 2,000-word report, published a cut down and cobbled together version of the story behind my back. I panicked and decided as a last-ditch resort to publish my working copy on my blog.
I wanted an accurate and complete version of events not just to be the story of record, but also to be the breaking story, the story that people actually read. Thankfully it was. The story was accurate, but to my shame the story was incomplete. Since last week I have received countless messages asking me why one name was missing from the report. That name was Aaron Swartz. What follows is the missing chapter.
At the very same time that Alexandra was building Sci-Hub, on the other side of the world, a young man named Aaron Swartz was fighting the same fight, in a very different way. Unlike Alexandra who has explained her reasoning for breaking the law to the judge acting in her case in the frankest possible terms, Aaron always followed the law meticulously.
Aaron was a boy genius; at the age of 12, he built Info Network, an early ancestor of Wikipedia. At the age of 13 he built Really Simple Syndication (RSS), the technology that is now near universally used to track virtually any publisher on the Internet, right from a blog such as mine, to the New York Times. If Aaron had not invented RSS, then I probably wouldn’t have been able to start out independently building my own audience, get noticed, and become a writer. Without Aaron you almost certainly would not be reading this now.
Later, he co-founded Creative Commons, the framework now used by millions of artists, writers, and publishers to free their work of the shackles of copyright with simple, clear open-access licences. Billions of pieces of work are now shared using this method. He also co-founded Reddit, a democratic social network that has become “the front page of the Internet,” delivering millions of people in any given moment to the most upvoted piece of information in their chosen networks.
He went on to build Deaddrop, now called SecureDrop, a method now broadly used by news agencies to collect information from anonymous sources. He also built Open Library, a website with the goal of having a page dedicated to every book in existence. In 26 short years Aaron helped found countless organisations dedicated to freedom of information and democratic social progress. One of those organisations, Demand Progress, has been responsible for some of the largest successful grassroots political campaigns in U.S. history. Despite earning millions at a very young age from his creations, he was a passionate fighter against wealth disparity:
“It seems ridiculous that miners should have to hammer away until their whole bodies are dripping with sweat, faced with the knowledge that if they dare to stop, they won’t be able to put food on the table that night, while I get to make larger and larger amounts of money each day just by sitting watching TV, but apparently the world is ridiculous." — Aaron Swartz
Aaron soon realised a grand injustice existed in the U.S. Access to vast swathes of the core documents that make up the law are not freely available to the public. To access the law, you had to pay a complex bureaucratic website 10 cents per page. In fact, you still do, and it’s a $10 billion-per-year business.
Of course, the law itself is not copyrighted. So when in 2008 Aaron wrote a piece of code to download 2.7 million documents from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database through a library terminal, and then made them freely available, Aaron was not technically breaking the law, as the FBI eventually conceded.
Technologist Carl Malamud explains: “PACER is an incredible abomination of government services; 10 cents per page; the most brain-dead code you have ever seen; you can’t search it; you can’t bookmark anything; you’ve got to have a credit card. These are public records; U.S. district courts are very important — it’s where a lot of our seminal litigation starts; civil rights cases, patent cases. Journalists, students, citizens, and lawyers all need access to PACER and it fights them every step of the way. People without means can’t see the law ... it’s a poll tax on access to justice.”
At the time Aaron made the documents available to the public there were only 17 libraries capable of freely accessing the law within the entire United States; that’s one access point for every 221,090 square miles (572,620 square km) of U.S soil.
In an unconnected hack, while at Stanford University Aaron downloaded the entire contents of the Westlaw legal database, a database he never publicly released, because that would have been illegal.
Analysis of the data Aaron obtained published in the Stanford Law Review revealed a pattern of massively corrupt practices involving top-level law professors being quietly paid by oil giants and other multi-billion dollar corporations, for the publication of biased legal opinions — “vanity research” purpose-built to be used to argue in court for the minimisation of punitive damages in existing multi-million dollar lawsuits.
I could go on about his many and varied achievements. I could go on about the incalculable good Aaron did for society. I could go on about the steps Aaron always took to act within the law, while he worked on its precipice, always for the betterment of others. I could go on about how while being in prime position to make untold millions more out of his creations, he lived modestly and spent night and day donating his time to fighting within the law for what is right, but it’s not what Aaron created that this story is about; it is what was taken from him, and with him, from all of us.
At the end of 2010, Aaron plugged a laptop directly into the server farm at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He’d written a Python script called “Keep Grabbing That Pie” to quietly download the entire contents of the JSTOR database of academic research.
Aaron had complete legal access to the research he downloaded, through his university subscription. His crime, had Aaron ever made it to the dock, would essentially have been taking too many books out of the library.
To their credit, when Aaron was caught, JSTOR chose not to press charges, but in a highly unusual legal decision, Aaron was set upon by the United States government with a string of 13 wire fraud-related felony charges.
On the 6th of January 2011, Aaron was arrested, allegedly assaulted by the police and placed in solitary confinement. In a strongly worded statement intended to send a message to hackers, federal prosecutors announced Aaron was facing felony charges that would result in up to 35 years in jail, restitution, asset forfeiture and up to a million dollar fine. He was released on $100,000 bail.
The government gave Aaron a non-negotiable demand that he accept the felony charges. Determined he had not committed a crime, he refused to plead guilty in return for a reduced sentence, and bans and restrictions on his computer use. This despite the fact that his legal costs had completely exhausted his financial resources and all the money that had been raised to defend him, a sum that ran into the millions of dollars.
On the 11th January 2013, two years of bitter legal proceedings later, and only two days after the prosecution had declined his counteroffer to a plea deal, he was found hanging dead in his apartment.
Aaron’s obituary was the first obituary I ever wrote. It doesn’t do justice to one of the greatest minds of our generation. It was written in a haze of shock, anger, and sadness the day of Aaron’s death. I wasn’t alone. An earthquake of grief reverberated around the Internet. His eulogy was read by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.
I never knew Aaron, but I am acutely aware of exactly how much I have benefited from his work, and how much we all stand to gain from the work he was doing. I studied at a university that couldn’t afford most useful journals, so I was dependent on the goodwill of others getting me the research I needed to pass. When I started out writing my first blog, Creative Commons gave me vast and easy access to sources of imagery I could legally and freely use to help illustrate my work; Reddit helped people find my writing even though they were mostly on the other side of the Atlantic. RSS let people that liked my work follow me without spending a penny, enabling me to build a career. For all of that, I will always be grateful to Aaron.
Aaron died before he could finish his work, but unbeknownst to him, Alexandra had already picked up the baton where he and countless others in online communities dedicated to freedom of information left off.
Alexandra has not only matched the 4 million articles Aaron downloaded from JSTOR before he was caught, but also released the articles into the public domain along with 43 million more, and built Sci-Hub, a one-click instant paywall workaround that works not just on JSTOR, but also Elsevier and a whole host of other paywalled academic publishers.
If I were a religious man, I might say that we can only pray that Alexandra won’t face a fate similar to Aaron’s — that she will stay safe from prison and legal intimidation and those who wish she would disappear, that she can continue doing what she does best, making discoveries and creating things.
But to say this would be a lie. We can’t only pray.
We can do everything in our power to make sure the politicians we elect don’t allow corporations to throw the book at researchers who have no other way to conduct science than to share their work freely. We can’t allow politicians to throw away the keys to the libraries. We must convince academics to stop handing the keys to their work to gang masters who would happily see all of our scientific knowledge remain inaccessible to the vast majority of humanity.
“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away, but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.
That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries, but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the global South? It's outrageous and unacceptable.
"I agree," many say, "but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights; they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly legal — there's nothing we can do to stop them." But there is something we can, something that's already being done: We can fight back.
Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.
Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.
But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It's called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral — it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.
Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.
There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.
We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies, and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file-sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.
With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we'll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?" - Aaron Swartz - July 2008, Eremo, Italy
Below is a gripping, thought-provoking and tear-jerking documentary on the events that led to Aaron’s death. It received a string of offers when it was nominated at Sundance, but in the spirit of Aaron’s beliefs the film’s producers have made it publicly available under a Creative Commons licence, so you can watch it in full below. It’s the most moving film I’ve seen in years.
At the time of Aaron’s arrest, Alexandra’s website was already in operation, but working on opposite sides of the world, the two were unbeknown to each other. “When I read in the news about Aaron for the first time I thought, that's the guy who could be my best friend and collaborator,” Alexandra told me.
While Alexandra later came to find Aaron’s writings inspiring and is working on translating them to Russian, she maintains her greatest inspiration was the countless “inspired people” all around the world who share knowledge in online communities based on their shared belief that knowledge should be free.
Read Part One: How one researcher — Alexandra Elbakyan — has made nearly every scientific paper ever published available for free to anyone, anywhere in the world.
Graphics and video courtesy of The Documentary Network (CC-BY-NC-SA). Creative Commons infographic by Shiamm Donnelly (CC-BY-NC-SA).
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.