Of Respect Disproportionated

In the first half of the year called 2013, MIT witnessed the tragic loss of two very different people, Aaron Swartz and Sean Collier, both of whose deaths reverberated in extensive aftershock through the MIT community. Both were heroes that lost their lives as part of thread that dared to bridge at least some of the countless deep lesions of society.

Reflective respect for Sean Collier escalated dramatically and immediately after his death in the line of duty. MIT took a school day off to honor Sean Collier in a ceremony so large it spanned Briggs Field and brought over the Vice President of the United States. The hacking community of MIT was quick to thoroughly honor Collier across campus. “Collier Strong” spread across Cambridge like “Boston Strong” (a move that I find very fit and indeed newly unifying). The number 179 became symbolic. An award was event made in his commemoration. And yet at the 2014 Excellence Awards, L. Rafael Reif still claimed Collier was undercelebrated, despite the fact the there is probably no name heard more in the past year here at MIT than his.

But there is something wrong with this picture. There were two of them. There were two heroes with a significant connection with MIT that died tragically early that year. What happened to Aaron Swartz? Sure, Swartz was exploiting MIT’s openness, but MIT prides itself in its openness that it wishes to contribute to aiding anyone yearning to carry the world to progress. Why did we not have a Briggs-spanning ceremony in honor of Aaron Swartz? Why have memorial slogans for Swartz not made their way into our discourse? Why wasn’t there a Swartz award to be handed out in the Excellence Awards?

To any reasonable standard, Swartz was clearly the greater hero. I hate to mention it, but the person who phoned in information about the Tsarnaevs’ flight from MIT contributed more to saving Boston than Sean Collier did. The only reason why Collier was notable was because he was killed: he died honorably in the line of duty. The impact of Collier’s work was at most local. But Swartz was much more.

Aaron Swartz’s work and life dedication to openness and freedom of the internet and the world was indubitably global in impact. Swartz’s contributions, from Reddit to spreading awareness of the dangers of SOPA, quake the farthest fibers of the electronic and outside world in the wavelength of openness. He is certainly a hero of the internet, and in the age of the internet that we are currently in, a hero of the world. And he is thoroughly forgotten here at MIT, ironically modulo the times in which actually unethical internet hackers vandalized whatever came to their minds as relating to MIT and its slightly regrettable decisions in the case of Aaron Swartz.

But this is a smaller part of a general issue. The “heroes” that American society celebrates are in general not the ones that actually allowed society to become the way it is right now. When it comes to scientists and engineers, America finds it awkward and strange, perhaps taboo, to consider those people heroes and worth dedicating extensive memorial to, and it has generally permeated our society that those we should be celebrating are not the ones actually building the world. Swartz is a victim of this “science curtain.” And evidently, this social standard is so strong that even MIT is unwilling to admit that the man more achieved of Sean Collier and Aaron Swartz was the latter, one who wasn’t one of us, but was unquestionably one who reflected the inner spirit of MIT.


A few years ago, a friend of mine told me that if she was male, and she could choose a name, she would have wanted to be named Rhys. That made me wonder if I was female what I would have wanted my name to be, and I probably spent way too long thinking about this, but I was really unsure and wanted to deeply contemplate. In all likelihood, I would have preferred to have a name that was not common at all, but I finally decided that if I were to choose a name that has actually been recognizably used, I would want to be named Iris. Other names I would have really liked include Vi, Lina, and Skyler.

Accidental Symbolism

I’ve a few times mentioned the ridiculousness of the seven-continent system that is taught in elementary school in the United States, and if you haven’t spent time doubting the legitimacy of the continent system you have been taught, I would recommend that you spend some time now thinking about what exactly defines a continent and note how difficult it is to actually formulate a reasonable definition of a continent that verifies all seven “continents” known as separate continents and excludes all landmasses that aren’t called continents, most notably a definition that explains why Europe and Asia are two separate continents and why Australia and Antarctica are continents but Greenland and Madagascar are not.

It turns out that the system frequently taught in Europe is no better. In fact, one of the original things that the five Olympic rings were supposed to symbolize were the five inhabited continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and America. That’s right, the assertion was that North and South America were not separate, but Europe and Asia were. North and South America at least are geologically on different plates. Europe and Asia, as typical continent boundaries are defined, are neither geographically, geologically, or even canal-wise separate. The fact the we are taught about Europe and Asia being separate continents in school is another very egregious case of traditions dying hard: the Ancient Greeks were the originators of the doctrine that Europe and Asia were separate continents when they thought the Black Sea was an ocean (to be fair, the Black Sea is geologically an ocean) and did not consider the existence of land on the other side. But land actually being here on the other side of the Black Sea, like Sochi, show clear evidence that of those five rings, one can be justifiably removed.


Land Area: Russia/Earth: 11.4%
Land Area: Russia and Antarctica/Earth: 20.3%

Land Area: Sakha/Russia: 18.3%
Land Area: Nunuvut/Canada: 23.0%
Land Area: Alaska/United States: 16.1%
Land Area: Xinjiang/China: 18.7%

Human Population: China/Earth: 19.1%
Human Population: China and India/Earth: 36.4%

Human Population: Guangzhou/China: 7.8%
Human Population: Uttar Pradesh/India: 16.5%
Human Population: California/United States: 12.1%
Human Population: Jawa Barat/Indonesia: 18.1%

Human Population: New York City/New York State: 42.4%
Human Population: New York City in 1950/New York State in 1950: 53.2%Human Human Population: Chicago/Illinois: 21.1%
Human Population: Chicago in 1950/Illinois in 1950: 41.6%

Cities of Population >100000: California/United States: 23.9%

Subcountry Political Divisions of Population >50000000: India and China/Earth: 90.9%

Mass: Sun/Solar System: 99.9%

Mass: Jupiter/Planets of the Solar System: 71.2%
Mass: Gas Giants of the Solar System/Planets of the Solar System: 99.6%

Mass: Ganymede/Moons of Jupiter: 37.7%
Mass: Galilean Moons/Moons of Jupiter: >99.9%

Mass: Titan/Moons of Saturn: 95.7%
Mass: Spherical Saturnian Moons/Moons of Saturn: >99.9%

Mass: Titania/Moons of Uranus: 38.6%
Mass: Spherical Uranian Moons/Moons of Uranus: 99.8%

Mass: Triton/Moons of Neptune: 99.6%

Mass: Charon/Moons of Pluto: >99.9%