Aaron Swartz and Carmen Ortiz

Aaron Swartz is dead. It appears that he took his own life. He was facing prosecution, and the possibility of jail time. I didn’t know him personally, but I am grateful for much of what he accomplished in his too-short life. I knew of him best for his co-founding of Reddit, but obituaries and other accounts of his life show that his energy and achievements went far beyond software development and entrepreneurship.

One of the outcomes of Aaron’s death has been a petition to remove from office Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, “for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz.” The petition is directed to the Obama administration, which appointed Ortiz.

I have signed the petition. I did not do so lightly. It first occurred to me to sign when I read the following quote from Ortiz in a recent Guardian article.

Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.

My reaction was (and is) that if Ortiz said this in the context of the Aaron Swartz case, I don’t want her anywhere near such a case. It is alleged that he copied documents. Copying documents, leaving the originals intact, is not the same sort of taking as stealing money, leaving the victim poorer. To introduce a economic term, copies of documents are not rivalrous goods.

Notice the if in the previous paragraph. It occurred to me that Ortiz may have been misquoted. I didn’t want to jump to the conclusion that she had said something so ridiculous. So I Googled the above quote. One of the many sources I found for it was a web page with the title “USDOJ: US Attorney’s Office – District of Massachusetts”. So the web site of Ortiz’s own organization “credits” her with that exact quote.

My objection to Ortiz as US Attorney is manyfold. First, she is actually responsible for the ridiculous statement quoted above. Second, she sought to have someone convicted of a felony and imprisoned on that ridiculous basis. I’ll stop here, partly because I am in no position to measure Ortiz’s share of the blame for Aaron’s death.

Threadless, Reddit, and Other Social Veterans

It’s time to stock up on t-shirts, and also time for a sale at Threadless. The sale end is due to end at the end of tomorrow (Monday), and the design is “Larry the Fox Doesn’t Feel So Clever Anymore.”

I see that today is the 6th anniversary of my very first Threadless order. Back in 2005 I lived in Boston and had only one kid; now I’m in Bethesda, Maryland, have two kids, and have seen a lot of other changes in those years. So has Threadless, although still has its community rate the submitted shirt designs.

Another social media site so old it can remember when Web 2.0 was a trendy term is Reddit. I see that I’ve been a redditor for 6 years. Mu current favorite subreddit is Breaking Bad, to which members submit links relevant to the excellent TV show of the same name.

The image shows one of my favorite recent submissions. It turns out that the original was sold on Etsy, “the world’s homemade marketplace”, and another older-than-6 social site. By the way, I did search for Breaking Bad t-shirts, and there are some out there, but none of them edged out the shirts I liked at Threadless.

This very blog is currently hosted at WordPress.com, which is run by Automattic, another social web company that passes the rather arbitrary 6-year test. Congratulations to the four above-mentioned veteran firms, and to other who have been around that long: it’s been a long and interesting passage of time.

Software Patents: Not in New Zealand

In New Zealand, a Patents Bill is about to pass into law. Once it does, software will be unpatentable in that fine country. I say it’s a fine country, not because I’ve been there, but because everyone I’ve met who’s been there says so, and there are hobbits (none of whom I’ve met), and… there will be no software patents.

That’s currently the top story on Reddit, in the form of a nicely balanced article by Paul Matthews of the New Zealand Computer Society. By “nicely balanced” I mean that he and I are on the same side, but that he makes a good effort to prevent the opposing case.

Reddit Has Freemium Thrust Upon It

Reddit is among the handful of sites I visit most days. It’s always been free. It’s supported by ads. It’s owned by Conde Nast, but that doesn’t mean it’s supported by Conde Nast. As mike [raldi] explained at the end of last week:

We’ve been kinda bummed at reddit these days. It seems like every week something comes up that slows performance to a crawl or even leads to a total site outage. And we almost never get a chance to release new features anymore…

The bottom line is, we need more resources.

Whenever this topic comes up on the site, someone always posts a comment about how reddit is owned by Conde Nast… and how if they wanted to they could hire a thousand engineers and purchase a million dollars worth of heavy iron. But here’s the thing: corporations aren’t run like charities. They keep separate budgets for each business line, and usually allocate resources proportionate to revenue. And reddit’s revenue isn’t great.

The good news is, our traffic continues to grow by leaps and bounds… to about 280 million pageviews per month.

Reddit addressed the resources problem by going freemium, but in a rather unusual way. The usual freemium proposition is: it’s a free service, but you can pay $X to get the following features. The Reddit proposition was a lot less specific:

in exchange for subscribing to reddit, we can right now only offer you our undying gratitude and an optional trophy on your userpage. It’s kind of a lame offer, we know, but if the program is a success, we’ll be able to give subscribers better incentives in the coming months. We invite you to post ideas in the comments section; in the meantime, I suppose it’s more or less a pledge drive.

The Reddit people called this Reddit Gold. Mashable Stan called it going freemium out of necessity. He also called it “a huge success” and an example of how “a very dedicated community can sometimes shape not only your service… but also your business plan.”

Reddit’s Chris [KeyserSosa] also hails the success of Gold, and promises that “there are some cool things coming that would be impossible for us to do for eight million active users, but totally feasible to bring to the 6000 or so who have taken a leap of faith with us so far.”

That figure of 6000 Gold members: it’s 6000 more users paying for Reddit than there were a week ago, but it’s a lot less than the 2% rule of freemium would suggest. That said, we’re a only few days into a rather sudden and unorthodox leap into freemium.

I hope that many more will sign on to Reddit Gold. Some intermittent users of Reddit have probably only just become aware of the Gold program. It’s currently the number five story on Reddit itself, by the way. Others may be waiting to see what the premium features will be. Some of us are prone to procrastinate, and/or are delaying discretionary outlays until we get our tax refund (and yes we did file on time, back in April).

MBAs and BS

When I saw a Reddit entry entitled The decline of the MBA will cut off the supply of bullshit at source, and linking to The Economist, I doubted that the Reddit title was a quote from the original article. But the article, by one Lucy Kellaway, includes the following sentence.

In 2010 the decline of the MBA will cut off the supply of bullshit at source.

As a once and (probably) future business school prof, I may be biased. But I do have arguments against multiple aspects of the article.

One argument concerns the employment of MBA graduates, and is linked to the prediction that the MBA will decline next year. While it is true that an MBA may not make a job candidate stand out, the lack of one may do so. What used to be true of a bachelor’s has become true of a master’s, and partularly of an MBA. It’s a box that employers expect to be able to check for many jobs.

A second argument is provoked by the above “bullshit” quote. The quote implies that business schools, and in particular MBAs, are the world’s sole source of bullshit. Kellaway is obviously a journalist blissfully unaware of other sources – such as politicians and journalists.

Sex, Books, and Movies

Describe Your Sex Life With A Movie Title is a currently popular topic on Reddit (and, I believe, elsewhere). Among the comments I’ve upvoted are:

  • Stop or My Mom Will Shoot.
  • Alone in the Dark.
  • 28 Weeks Later. For us, it was more than 30 weeks later, but not as near to 40 as we were expecting. But things worked out well for our early baby, as I hope that they did for the 28-week baby.

There was an earlier topic, Describe Your Sex Life With A Book Title. My comment there referred to Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. I strongly recommend the novel.

There is a movie, which I recommend less heartily. It is sometimes referred to by the same title as the book, and sometimes as Never Give an Inch. As someone remarked on Reddit, once you start thinking about these topics, almost anything seems to fit. Perhaps I should rephrase that. Or perhaps I should just top typing now…