Video: Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz by Brian Knappenberger

 

Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,‘ is a documentary by Brian Kannpenberger. The film traces the story of Swartz, a programming prodigy and social/political activist from his childhood to adulthood and why he took his own life on Jan 11, 2013. He was 26 years old.

Swartz  was surrounded by computers and the Internet from a very young age. In the film we see a precocious Swartz on the computer and how he loved teaching his younger siblings. He came to the spotlight during his teenage years for various projects, including his involvement in Creative Commons with Lawrence Lessig. He went on to create RSS, an Internet Protocol and co-founded Reditt that was acquired by Conde Nast.

Swartz joined Stanford and dropped out after a year and got involved in various projects, one of which ended up in a Federal legal case. This was when Swartz downloaded thousands of JSTOR documents at MIT in 2011. He was charged under the Computer Frauds and Abuse act with “the claim that Swartz had unauthorized access to MIT and JSTOR’s networks, according to The Boston Globe report.  Swartz was arrest and charged with an “intent to commit a felony.” For the next two years Swartz was involved in a Federal case and then in January 2013 he took his own life.

In “Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” Knappenberger takes a closer look att Swartz and the JSTOR documents he was downloading at MIT and how the Federal legal case came about. We hear from Swartz’s parents, his brothers, girlfriends, Lawrence Lessig and others. Why was Swartz charged under the Computer Frauds and Abuse Act? What is Aaron’s Law? You are left with more questions than answers after you see the film. Questions like what was Swartz going to do with the downloaded JSTOR documents? Why did MIT remain neutral in the Aaron Swartz case? Why did Swartz not embrace the startup life of Silicon Valley after co-founding and selling off Reditt?

We spoke to Knappenberger about how and why he came to this documentary on Aaron Swartz and his interest in technology and society.  Knappenberger’s previous documentary “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists” (2012)

 

  • Title: Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
  • Running Time: 120 minutes
  • Status: Released
  • Country: United States
  • Genre: Documentary

Q&A with Andrew Rossi on Ivory Tower, His New Documentary on Higher Education in the USA

Filmmaker Andrew Rossi’s new documentary “Ivory Tower,” is a compelling documentary on the ballooning costs of higher education in the USA. Many students carry a significant amount of debt when they graduate from school. What does that debt total. How about $1 trillion? That is the number pegged to the student loan debt in the USA and that is what got Rossi interested in looking into this black box called higher education that comes with a huge sticker shock for many students.

Here is our Q&A with Rossi.

 

Q. What prompted you to make this film on the higher costs of education and spiraling student loans?

 Rossi: When I began thinking about an investigation into the value of college, one of the key inspirations was the theme of disruption.  In so many corners of the higher education landscape, it seemed that disruption was barreling forward at great speed: the promise of freely accessible online learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs); the crisis of young people suffering with student loan debt, which, in 2011, exceeded $1 trillion cumulatively (more than the United States’ credit card debt); and even the audacious offer of Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 Fellowship, offering students $100,000 to drop out of school and start a company.

My interest was piqued because Institutional change has been at the core of almost every movie I’ve made, from the upheaval in the newspaper business depicted in PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES (2011) to the death of grand, formal dining experienced by the Italian family in LE CIRQUE: A TABLE IN HEAVEN (2008) to the advent of legal same sex marriage in Massachusetts, as documented in THE SKY DID NOT FALL (2004).

But just as motivating was the inner voice of a devil’s advocate perspective, borne of a life-long appreciation for education, teachers and the peer-to-peer learning experience. Throughout my life, teachers, professors and classmates have been some of the most important influences, and “school,” as a physical space, has provided a nurturing environment sometimes rivaling even home or church. So how could it be that just fifteen years after I left school, successful and respected entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel were exhorting students to drop out of excellent colleges? Could the state of teaching and learning on campuses have become so out of whack? I wondered what was really taking place on the ground in colleges, and I believed that a close look inside a diverse array of institutions might provide narrative data to fuel a sober discussion of what college has become and where it can do better.

Q: How did you pick the colleges that you highlight in your documentary? 

Rossi: We wanted to pick a diverse set of institutions that would do justice to the breadth of schools in the higher education sector. We followed storylines at elite private universities such as Harvard, which is also the first American college and “source of DNA” for American higher education, according to Clayton Christensen, smaller liberal arts colleges like Wesleyan, large public research universities such as Arizona State, regional public colleges like San Jose State, and community colleges such as Bunker Hill. San Jose State and Bunker Hill were particularly interesting to us because they were both involved in experiments with online education, partnering with Udacity and edX, respectively. We also included portraits of Spelman College, a historically black all women’s college, and Deep Springs, a free two-year all male college in the California desert, in order to demonstrate the transformative power of a liberal arts education that emphasizes intimate, peer-to-peer interaction. We also devote significant attention to Cooper Union, which has been free for every undergraduate throughout its 159-year history up until this year, to show a dramatic example of what can go wrong when a college embraces a corporatized business model. We felt that telling the story of the students occupying the President’s office in response to the decision to begin charging tuition was also a great way to depict the power of student activism and engagement.

Q: What does education mean today?  Is college worth the cost? Do you need a degree to succeed in life?

 Rossi: Education remains a critical gateway to the middle class, and data shows that the economic value of a college degree is even increasing. But the fact that student debt is so high and threatens the financial well being of many young people, combined with the fact that 68% of students at public universities fail to graduate in 4 years (and 44% fail to get out even after 6 years) is threatening that value proposition. What’s unfortunately been lost in a lot of the public debate surrounding the value of college is the conception of higher education as a public good that benefits our overall society by producing educated, engaged citizens. We now view it exclusively as a private good that benefits individual graduates’ lifetime earnings. Casting the value question simply in individual financial terms glosses over the critical role higher education has played in our national history and the character formation that college should encourage among students.

Q: Is the education sector poised for a change? Is it going to pivot? Could technology and Internet change the way we learn? (There is the California role model of education throughout he UC and Cal system. And then there is the Silicon Valley model of online education. And as if that were not enough there is Peter Thiel’s UnCollege movement.) Is there a tug of war between the Cal State model and the Silicon Valley model in education?

Rossi: While we were in the thick of shooting the movie, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) seized the attention of the national media, and many observers of the sector hailed technology as a savior for education. California, whose public university system has a storied history, was most eager to try to adopt this new technology. However, as the movie clearly depicts, the early experiments at San Jose State University, which partnered with Silicon Valley startup Udacity to provide purely online instruction to remedial math students, failed badly, causing much of the enthusiasm for MOOCs to subside dramatically.

So, while Silicon Valley and the California public education system both share a desire to expand the franchise of higher education to previously underserved populations, it seems as if Silicon Valley has been a little too ready to do away with critical aspects of the traditional college experience—namely, in-person instruction. The prospect of flipped classroom models, however, whereby students can engage with video lecture material at home and then work together with an instructor present in a face-to-face environment, offers a more promising future. At the same time, we’ve actually seen Udacity begin to “pivot” away from higher education and into corporate training, suggesting that Sebastian Thrun’s predictions of dramatic disruption in higher education may have been premature.

Just as MOOCs best serve students who already have a college degree, the UnCollege movement offers an exciting alternative for highly driven students, who have already acquired critical thinking skills from a good K-12 education and enjoy a certain degree of financial stability. But as Thiel himself admits in Ivory Tower, it is not an approach that can be easily scaled to benefit students from less advantaged backgrounds, who have yet to be exposed to high quality education and may not be equipped to take the financial risk of forgoing what is an increasingly important credential in the marketplace.

Q: What are your thoughts on President Obama’s Pay As You Earn (PAYE) program and his recent announcements to cap student loans and forgive student debts that are over 20 years old?

 Rossi: President Obama’s recent executive order to expand student loan repayment options is an important step in reducing the debt burden many graduates are shouldering. Similar efforts, including Elizabeth Warren’s recently defeated student loan refinancing legislation, should be commended as necessary measures for keeping our young people and our economy financially healthy.

However, I believe a more systemic overhaul is necessary in order to cure the “cost disease” in higher education. Universities have been pursuing an unsustainable business model and have become caught in a race for prestige to attract the student loan dollar (as a substitute for government support) while attempting to keep up with competitors in an arms race of amenities. Unfortunately, such a dramatic government intervention, which would follow in the tradition of the Morrill Act of 1862, the GI Bill, and the Higher Education Act of 1965, appears unlikely given the current political climate.

Q: Where do you see the light at the end of this education tunnel?

 Rossi: If higher education is going to overcome its financial crisis, it will also need to see a cultural change take place, where we as a society affirm that higher education is a public good. Moreover, we need to recognize that universities are not businesses and that students are not customers. With this mentality we can enable students to pursue an affordable, debt-free education in a rigorously engaged manner, instead of having them passively consume an overpriced educational “product” that too often focuses on things that have nothing to do with academics.

 

Casey Kasem, RIP

“I am Casey Kasem.” and thus began a Sunday ritual for millions of people, who flocked to their radio and transistor sets to listen to  “American Top 40.”  And for the net 2 hours folks would be glued listening to the program that ended when Kaem signed off with “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”

He was the Voice of American music  and  America’s “tastemaker” for millions of people around the world, especially for those who grew up in the pre-Internet and pre-MTV era. For 40 years Kasem’s  smooth & unforgettable voice  introduced us to  new American music. He knew how to pack interesting teasers and hooks in-between the music tracks that kept a listener’s interest. When you listened to him it was as if he was talking just to you, which is the magic of radio. Kasem knew how to create that magic on radio.

Kasem, 82 passed away today near Seattle, WA. He was born in Mo Town to Lebanese and made a name for himself as a voice artist and radio jockey. In 1970 he started his iconic “American Top 40” from Los Angeles.  By many reports Kasem was a stickle for perfection, who did take after take until he got it right. Take a listen to this video clip, where you can hear him try to get it right.

Folks in America and Europe listened to Casey Kasem’s every week on their radio. But, for many people in India we barely got to listen to his live radio show. We listened to him through cassette tapes. Let me explain. Before the 1990s there was barely any TV or radio shows that played American/European pop music in India. Yes, some radio stations played pop music, but generally they were not new music, but old tracks from the 1950s and 1960s. The only way you got to listen to “new” and “happening”music was through Radio Australia or recorded programs of American Top 40 that someone’s uncle, cousin or aunt would tape and send to their family. And that tape would then be passed around and you you got to listen to new music.

Kasem leaves behind a rich radio legacy.

Thank you Casey Kasem for bringing a little bit of music into our lives and brightening it.

 

Film Notes: Filmistaan

Borders. When we think of borders, we  generally see them as straight or jagged lines on a map. That borders are rigid and defined is one notion – but there is the other side to this and that is borders are living, breathing entities where a lot happens. Towns located along any geographical borders tend to be interesting places with lot of shared history and culture. They also tend to be places where cultures mingle. For instance, music, films and foods do not recognize borders – they simply permeate through these well-defined border to different corners of our mind and heart. It is amazing how music, films and food slip across borders and become part of our lives.

In South Asia films – especially Bollywood films tend to unite people from different countries in the region. That films form a common bond between Indians and Pakistanis is an underlying theme of “Filmistaan” (2014). The film is about an aspiring Bollywood actor Sunny (Shaarib Hashm), who finds a temporary gig as an assistant director for a foreign (American) production company and therein lies a tale about films and borders.

While filming their documentary in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, the crew lands up in a sensitive border area with Pakistan. After placating the Indian security forces they complete their shooting and head back to their accommodation. Sunny takes care of some loose ends and is the last one to head out of this small desert town. He is tired and it is late as he drives through the featureless desert. Surprise, surprise he ends up crossing the border into  Pakistan and is captured by terrorists. They take him to a nearby village, where he is locked up in a house in a remote border town in Pakistan.

While he is locked up in village in Pakistan, who should he meet? Another film addict Aftab (Inaamulhaq), who brings pirated Bollywood film to this little border hamlet. As luck would have it Sunny is imprisioned in Aftab’s family home and the two strike up an instant and unlikely friendship. What happens next is what the film is about.

Director Nitin Kakkar does a great job of highlighting the shared history and the love for cinema in India and Pakistan in this aptly titled film “Filmistaan.” If you think about it the title pays homage to that common place where all Hindi/Bollywood film lovers hang out. It is this shared space that is explored in the film. The film does makes you think about borders, maps, films and music. While watching the film all I kept thinking was the fun that the director and the crew must have had while they were “roll, rolling and acting” and creating an interesting film.

HBO’s Silicon Valley

HBO’s new show “Silicon Valley,” is at the end of its first season and has found a strong fan base.  I was skeptical and unconvinced when I saw the first episode called “Minimum Viable Product.” It had lots of of hype and did paint a very flattering  picture of this “cradle of innovation” and startup culture. The show appeared a tad cliched in terms of the characters. You see they had a token desi (South Asian) in that startup team. You gotta have a desi, right? So, there is Dinesh played by Kumail Nanjiani. And then they had a not-s-nice character, who likes to get everyone riled up. Meet plays Erlich Bachman played by TJ Miler, who  needs a special mention for adding that interestingness angle to the show.

By the time the  fourth episode “Fiduciary Duties” rolled by I was mildly hooked and by their seventh episode “Proof of Concept,” I was hooked to the show. And by their final episode I was exhibiting those classic withdrawal symptoms. When will the  new season start? What will happen to Piped Piper, the fictional startup in the show? Will they cross the chasm and make it to the other side? Will they be able to build, test and ship their produce successfully? Or, will they drown in a bug-infested digital wasteland?

Mike Judge the creator of this series takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the startup culture and the cut-throat competition that exists behind the scenes in Silicon Valley.  I believe “skewers” was the word Wired used in their article about Judge and “Silicon Valley.” Judge is a former software developer and the creator “Office Space” that has a cult following among developers and geeks.    Judge definitely has a good feel for the startup and geek culture that permeates Silicon Valley and does a brilliant job of capturing that ambiance in his new show.

And yes, the show has a second season coming up.

Rep. Mike Honda vs. Ro Khanna in Silicon Valley’s Congressional Elections

The results for the “jungle primary” elections for Silicon Valley’s Congressional district 17 are in. It is going to be a battle between incumbent Rep. Mike Honda and Ro Khanna for the November elections. According to the Silicon Valley Congressional Elections in CA 17″ href=”http://blogs.kqed.org/newsfix/2014/06/03/live-updates-california-congressional-race-seventeen/”>results Rep. Honda won 48.6% and Ro Khanna got 27.1%. Trailing not too far behind Khanna is Vanilla Singh (R), who got 16.9 %.

The campaign for this Congressional district started very early, in fact right after Rep. Honda got elected last year. President Obama endorsed Rep. Honda (73), while quite a few of  of Silicon Valley tech companies backed Khanna (37), who announced that he was running for elections in April 2013. Up until early this year it looked  like the “jungle primary” race was going to be  between Rep. Honda and Khanna, both of whom we interviewed on our TV show. But, then things changed when two new candidates joined the fray.

Early this year two new Republican candidates threw in their hat into the race. They were: Vanilla Singh, a Stanford physician and Joel Vanlandingham. Unexpected is how many political analysts and pandits described when the two new candidates entered the elections and changed the tone and tempo of the race in Silicon Valley. Some described the race as bitter, while others described it as ugly. All of a sudden, it went from being a race between the incumbent and a young challenger to one with the incumbent facing 3 challengers.

Rep. Honda is a 7 term Congress Representative. Khanna is running for elections for the first time. He previously served in Obama’s administration. Rep. Honda is a former school teacher, who started his political career at a local level in Silicon Valley before going to Sacramento and Washington DC. Khanna is a lawyer, who served in Obama’s administration and is contesting elections for the first time.

We now have  two Democrats facing off each other the the November elections and the question is who will represent Silicon Valley? Will it be Honda or Khanna? While the voter turnout for the primary elections was quite low, I suspect the turnout will be pretty high in the November elections. This is going to be a fiercely fought elections and the battle for the seat has just begun.

Jerry Brown vs. Neel Kashkari For California’s Governor’s Elections

The governor’s race in California just got very interesting with an unexpected turn of events. Governor  Jerry Brown was a sho0-in for the primary elections in California. The question on many people’s mind in the Golden State was this – who will be his opponent come November? Which Republican candidate will be running against Governor Brown? And the people in California have spoken. Come November it is going to be a race between incumbent Jerry Brown (D) vs. Neel Kashkari (R.). Governor Brown sailed through the primary elections, while Kashkari came a distant second after narrowly beating his Republican opponent Tim Donnelly, a Tea Party member.

Dubbed as a low-key elections, the interesting twist came from the Republican party when Kashkari defeated  Donnelly. Both candidates were duking it out in the state and fighting for name recognition among the voters, which predominately tends to vote Democratic. The state however had had its fair share of Republican Governors right from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarznegger. But in this year’s governor’s elections Kashkari and Donnelly represented different strands of the Republican Party and as George Skelton of  The Los Angeles Times put it the two candidates offer two party for California Republicans.

Kashkari, a former US Treasury official is pegged as a moderate Republican who supports abortion and gay rights and voted for President Obama in 2008 elections. He also put in quite a bit of his own money to fund his election campaign. An Indian-American, who grew up in the mid-west, Kashkari’s political campaign was simply this: education and jobs.

Donnelly, on the other hand, belongs to the conservative element of the Republican Party, whose was “Patriot not Politician.”  He is pro gun and anti-immigration. In a Facebook post in March he linked  Kashkari, a Hindu, to fundamentalist Islamic law.  Donnelly was criticized by many in the Republican Party. Darrell Issa (R) who said that there was “no place” in the party for Donnelly.

Prior to the primary elections, various poll surveys had pegged the two Republican candidates locked in a tight battle with Kashkari enjoying a wafer thin majority. Kashkari had the backing of Mitt Romney and other Republican heavy weights, while Donnelly had quite a bit of grassroots supporters and not many Republican heavy weights supporting him.

The challenge for Kashkari now is to wage his campaign against a strong incumbent with a deep war chest and name recognition. Kashkari has a long and hard uphill battle if he wants to become the next Governor of California.