Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Part 1

by Zooko Wilcox-O'Hearn, written from 2013-01-11 to 2013-02-06

This was written as an outpouring of grief. Please judge it in that context. Also, these are my memories and opinions, and nobody else is responsible for any errors or offenses.

I first met Aaron In Real Life outside the hotel where the O'Reilly Peer-to-Peer Conference was being held in 2001 in Washington D.C.. Aaron was 14. I was newly married to Amber, and we had a six month old son, Irby. It was the first time I had been apart from them since Irby was born, and I was worried about them.

It was a few days before the September 11 attacks.

I remember that Aaron's mom had escorted him that far ‒ to the sidewalk in front of the hotel ‒ and I introduced myself to him and to her. She said something to make me understand that she had some reservations about leaving her child all day at this big hotel full of strangers, and so I spoke confidently and made eye contact with her and acted like a responsible grown-up and said I would keep an eye on him. She accepted that and left.

It's not like she had any idea who I was or that we had pre-arranged that. I don't know how I managed to run into them on the sidewalk outside the hotel when they were arriving. Actually, maybe we had pre-arranged it ‒ I don't remember. Anyway, I already thought of Aaron as pretty much a competent human (we already knew each other from IRC and email) so I didn't sweat the “keeping an eye on him” part much, but we did mostly hang around with each other that day. I remember being annoyed that he wouldn't eat his hamburger at lunch and he also wouldn't tell me why not. Years later, I would learn that he had a restrictive diet that was extremely high in carbohydrate.

Like many ‒ perhaps most ‒ of my relationships, my relationship with Aaron was a “net.friendship”. It was geographically remote, temporally sporadic, and it grew in the uncharted borderlands between professional collaboration, revolutionary camaraderie, and personal affection.

We were part of an inchoate, ad-hoc community of collaborators who helped each other learn how to code. No, not how to write code ‒ how to write code for the purpose of changing the world. Code with a political purpose. I can't explain it right now, in my grief, or perhaps I can't explain it at all. I was at that conference, and I knew Aaron, because of “Mojo Nation”, which later became “Mnet”, then “Allmydata”, and then my current project, Tahoe-LAFS. I've been doing the same damn thing all this time, while he did so many different things.

That thing I've been doing is trying to make a decentralized and censorship-resistant Web; a Web that can't be surveilled or censored, a Web with no master. That turned out to be what hackers wryly call “a hard problem”, which means it may be impossible. Even if it does turn out to be possible, it might require a lifetime of work. Aaron helped us when we started, when he was 13 or 14 years old, and he was still helping in the months before his death.

Aaron and I discussed The Naming Problem – how does your computer identify servers or other computers that it communicates with over a network? I posted an essay about this in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, one month after I met aaronsw In Real Life for the first time. Mark S. Miller termed it “Zooko's Triangle”, which made a name for me.

In those years aaronsw and I exchanged email and chatted on IRC. I used to post comments on his blog about philosophy and economics. He talked about me in posts to his blog, and he always read my blog, which I filled with essays on possible future architectures of the Internet, alongside loving depictions of life with my wonderful wife and son. Aaron was a big fan of Irby.

Since my blog was written in handcrafted HTML instead of being generated by a tool, it didn't have an RSS feed. Aaron wrote a custom parser to parse my style of HTML usage and generate an RSS feed of my blog.

When he started at Stanford, he and I drove around in the dark in a rented car, arguing stubbornly about evolution, artificial intelligence, and sex.

Aaron erred on the side of openness on his blog. (I'm following his lead, see?) Shortly after starting at Stanford, he blogged about making out with a woman on a darkened lawn on campus. “I can't believe I'm dry-humping Aaron Swartz!”, she breathed. “I can't believe I'm dry-humping!”, he wrote. He was funny. He was 17.

Within days he had deleted that episode from his blog and posted a new entry with some agonized introspection about whether he was a callous and immoral person. Apparently the woman had taken offense to being described like that in public. (He didn't include her last name, but her identity was probably deducible by people close to them, such as other Stanford students.) I figured out which blog must be hers and looked at it. It included a recent episode in which she had sex in an airport with a stranger who approached her, which I thought was pretty awesome. I sent Aaron an email saying he shouldn't sweat it so much. Stop beating yourself up! She'd get over it.

Aaron made me feel like I was important to him. I think he made a lot of people feel that way. If I was serving in the role of father-figure, I'm sure I did an inadequate job of it.

Through the next few years we stayed in touch through the Net, and we met every now and then at a conference or a party. I never lived in the same town as aaronsw, but we sometimes visited a town where the other lived, or the other was visiting.

During one of these years or another, our relationship changed. Aaron had grown up. He was now more successful than I was, professionally. I also stopped giving him advice about how to deal with girls.

Another thing that had changed is that Aaron got into political activism. I thought ‒ and I still do think ‒ that political activism is mostly useless and often destructive. I think Eliezer Yudkowsky was right when he wrote “Politics is the mindkiller.”. Politics makes you polarized and emotional. It makes you see the world in terms of “us versus them”. Nothing is more motivating and unifying to a group of human animals than having a common enemy. But this is an irrational urge, rooted in millions of years of evolution and warfare, not an effective strategy against today's threats.

The important threats aren't human villains to defeat ‒ evil politicans, lawyers, or businesspeople. The important threats are faceless patterns of destruction: poverty and disease, bad economic and political structures, ignorance and superstition.

It was disease that killed Aaron.

By 2007, I perceived Aaron as having become too emotional and polarized to listen to reason. It didn't help that I disagreed with most of his political beliefs and preferred policies: “Lefty” politics, which I perceive as being a highly emotional, socially constructed belief system, like a religion.

We agreed to a book swap to bridge the gap. He gave me “Understanding Power ‒ The Essential Noam Chomsky”. I gave him “Darwin's Dangerous Idea” by Daniel Dennett. Neither of us got much from the other's offering. That damned Chomsky book is still sitting on my bedside bookshelf, but I've long since given up feeling guilty every time my gaze falls upon it. I never made it past the first couple of chapters.

Aaron announced that he would give $100 to anyone who could point out a factual error in Chomsky's writing. I thought I had him dead to rights ‒ there's this weird, inaccurate aside in the first couple of chapters of “Understanding Power” about capitalism causing certain South Americans to speciate into a race with shrunken heads. But I never brought it up. I was afraid he'd be angry, or reject me.

Thus circumscribed by my cowardice, our relationship began to narrow.

He visited me at the office of Allmydata in San Francisco one time. I guess it must have been just after he was fired by Conde Nast, so it must have been 2007. I remember seeing him in a t-shirt that said “FIRED” in a parody of the “WIRED” logo. I think he might have borrowed that shirt from Danny O'Brien.

There was another reason that our relationship narrowed, and it too came down to my cowardice. I had become fearful of the consequences to Irby of growing up in public. I stopped putting photos, videos, and stories about him on my blog. Amber and I had had another child, back in 2004 ‒ another beautiful, wonderful boy ‒ Elliot ‒ and I said almost nothing about him on my blog. Cut off from one of the mainsprings of my personal story, my blog began to dry up, limiting one of the ways that Aaron and I communicated with one another.

And there was another reason, another cowardice: I didn't want anyone to know about Amber's mental illness.

My blog had always been a lie, see? Every story was true, but I told only the happy stories, the loving ones. This created a false picture, built out of truths. The true picture was that Amber had suffered from depression since adolescence. Her depression had worsened since we married and had children. She had become increasingly prone to periods of black despair and helplessness, and also to hair-trigger rage, and irrational enthusiasm, and, yes, suicidality. Our life together was often tense, angry, and fearful. That was why I had been so worried about being away from my new family when I went to the Peer-to-Peer Conference in 2001 where I met Aaron In Real Life.

We had tried increasing her dosage of Prozac, tried decreasing it. We saw psychiatrists and counsellors and therapists. Nothing helped.

As the years had crept by, and Irby had grown into a preschooler, and Elliot was born, Amber's condition had continued to worsen, leaving her fewer and fewer days of productivity and lovingness, and more stretches of agony and anger. She slept twelve hours a day or more. She was unable to fulfill her responsibilities. She dropped out of graduate school, thus abandoning her lifelong dream of being a scientist. She became overweight, which she hated. Our marriage was a patchwork of anger and resentment, held together by the utter dependence of our two innocent children and by slender threads of our loyalty and love for one another.

In 2006 we had taken Amber to the doctor after a suicide attempt and learned about the diagnosis “Bipolar Disorder”. Suddenly everything made sense ‒ the weird way in which her deepest troughs of despair were often preceded by a few hours of impulsivity and giggliness, and the fact that on days when she had extra sleep she was more prone to anger and depression. And the fact that if she binged on cake, ice cream, or bread that she would tend to fly into rages the next day. All of these patterns and more were confidently explained by the new crop of psychiatrists as being symptoms of “Bipolar Disorder Type II”.

We were taught that in the past Bipolar Disorder II was not recognized, and was frequently misdiagnosed as depression. The drugs prescribed for depression, such as Prozac, we were told, could actually exacerbate bipolar disorder and worsen it over time. Could Amber's use of Prozac (which she had been taking for 13 years, since she was 19 years old) have been behind the worsening of her condition?

We learned that people with bipolar disorder are often very successful. They can be exceptionally creative, intelligent, and ambitious, even though their lives are punctuated by periods of depression. Sound like anyone you know?

And, we learned that people with bipolar disorder are in great danger of suicide. We were told that people with bipolar disorder kill themselves more frequently than anyone does, even more frequently than do people with depression.

We began to perceive undiagnosed bipolar disorder in our acquaintances. How many of our scientist and hacker friends seemed to be enthusiastic and sharp one day, and demotivated and down the next!

We wondered aloud to one another: does bipolar disorder predispose one to become a successful computer programmer or researcher? Maybe they are driven into these intellectual fields of endeavor by the advantages of their long periods of high energy and acute cognition, even though they are also plagued by long periods of unproductivity and negativity.

With this new diagnosis came a whole new menu of psychiatric drugs that were billed as helping against bipolar disorder.

One psychiatrist, Dr. Antonio Wood, stated that Amber would, with the help of the drugs, recover from her bipolar disorder. He said that she would become functional and safe, but that she would never again be able to drink alcohol or eat sugar. If she did, or if she were struck on the head or if she got pregnant again, then she would suffer a relapse. Later we would remember those caveats.

It seemed like our long years of sadness and fear were finally over! But it was not to be – the worst was just beginning.

end Part 1

Go to Part 2.


  1. We should talk about activist politics sometime, Zooko. (I think it has a wider scope than you've described here, but this is not the place to discuss that.)

    -- David-Sarah Hopwood

  2. Just on the bipolar thing:

    I think the presence of a socially limiting neurochemical configuration might predispose one towards less socially-dependent roles in society.

    I have no evidential basis of belief in this, just a thought.