Remembering Aaron Swartz

Boston Wiki Meetup

Good grief. Aaron Swartz is dead. As a fellow startup founder driven by social justice principles, Aaron was someone I looked to both as an example and as a peer.

We were in touch off and on for several years. Though we'd emailed previously, I first met the Internet hero and boy genius around 2007, when we met up to talk about book data, digital libraries, open data, and spidering/scraping strategies. He was incredibly smart and principled, and I was struck by his ability to dive so deeply into new areas.

When he sold Reddit, I gave him advice based on what I'd learned selling

And when I was about to leave, I very explicitly used Aaron as a model of what it could look like for a startup founder to do tech-driven social justice work after exiting. (I wasn't nearly as successful at it as him.)

Aaron worked on so many things I use regularly:

Aaron was a hero of the open net. We're all poorer for his absence.

An Online Guide to "Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground"

I'm in the process of migrating some old web content, when I came across a fan page I'd created in 1997 for the album Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground. It felt like an incredibly important compilation at the time, and helped break the Asian Underground and new British Asian electronic music scenes. I'd been hunting for reviews, to get a better sense of the context, and decided to put up a fan page about the album, linking to off-site reviews.

I just came back to my Online Guide to Anokha website after twelve years, and for nostalgia's sake, decided to look at some of the reviews.

Click. 404. Click. 404. Click. 404

All twenty-four outgoing links had died. In many cases, the entire website had disappeared. Tim Berners-Lee famously said "cool URIs don't change." Apparently nobody had informed the rest of us.

I suffered a moment of panic, realizing I could never go back to recapture the context of the document. And then, a sigh. There was always the Internet Archive. I loaded up the page in the Internet Archive.

Click. Yes. Click. Yes. Click. Yes.

I found pulled up seventeen of twenty-four links. A few had issues, including reliance on dead video plugin formats. One now-dead site had blocked crawlers, preventing the Internet Archive from storing any record of their existence. But by and large, it was mostly there. I breathed a sigh of relief.

The Internet Archive still feels like a massively-unsung hero of the net, single-handedly staving off the forces of amnesia by linkrot, for those who choose to embrace the open web. It gives me pause to think about how much less we'll be archiving as we spend more time in walled gardens like Facebook, or with hard-to-index dynamic/AJAX content.

Below, for your linkrot-loving enjoyment, are the broken links from 1998; you can also see the the page with archived links at the Internet Archive.



About Talvin Singh

For a complicated set of reasons, I ended with a subscription to Prevention magazine, an incredibly uninteresting vehicle for drug companies to advertise to health-concerned American women 45 and up.

I was throwing out a pile of unread issues, when I noticed the magazine's "Faces" masthead page, which features pictures and quotes from staff members, responding to a different query every month. It's nicely designed, and does a lot to humanize the team, including members of the ad sales team, who rarely get the limelight.

Check it out:

Prevention magazine masthead October 2010 detail

Prevention magazine masthead September 2010

We're traveling through South India. We took the train to Hyderabad, where we spent a day with family. The next night, we took the train to Bangalore, where we ended up heading to opening night at the Bangalore Queer Film Fest. In both places, we were deeply conscious of being part of that new breed of Global Indian.

B's cousin works for a US financial institution and flies to the US a lot. His wife works for a global consulting firm. They're in their 30s, don't have kids yet, love to travel. They're both learning musical instruments later in life, and are passionate about it. In short, they're Just Like Us.

We talked about work, travel, family. We could have been sitting in the US, or in India; it didn't matter. We could share travel stories, discuss work, talk about our passions, without shame about class or privilege, without needing to hide or modulate the true stories of our lives. B's cousins could have chosen to live in the US, but they didn't; they had everything they needed at home, living lives much like those of our Silicon Valley Indian-American friends. For the first time, I really understood what Indian nationalists meant by the term "Global Indian"--that odd category blurring the lines between upwardly mobile Indians, and the upwardly mobile diaspora.

We got to Bangalore the next morning, and immediately started trying to hunt down details about the Bangalore Queer Film Fest, which one SF friend had attended the year before, and another was plugging via Facebook. We called up our friend Jasmeen, and made our way to Bangalore's Alliance Francaise to watch the opening movie, the Indian premiere of Tom Ford's The Single Man, set in 1960s California.

It felt like home. We met up with friends old and new: artists, journalists, activists, feminists, lawyers, and LGBT activists galore. Most of the next day was spent at the festival. We watched a panel on the unraveling of Section 377, and watched films depicting transgender Desi breakdowns, lesbian Canadians, and gay Cairenes. We were delighted to see Praveen, who we'd last met at our going-away party in far-away Berkeley, and who had just moved to Bangalore. San Francisco kept coming up over and over in the movies; in one scene, a character moves to SF and is shown walking the same streets, chanting the same anti-war chants, as we had back home. We could have been sitting at a film festival at home, Frameline or 3rd I.

I'm not sure that this is what Indian nationalists means when they refer to the Global Indian, but it's here that I'm most proud to claim the title, at a festival full of Indians, expats, and NRIs (with supportive global networks sending good wishes), united not by class privilege, but by love and solidarities, Stonewall and Khujaraho, camp and complex marriages, Trikone and truth-telling.

Sunday was our second day spent with PRAN in Noakhali, Bangladesh, learning about local climate justice issues and concepts. Masud-bhai from PRAN took us to visit a community of Hurricane Alia survivors, where landless farmers are building new lives for themselves in incredibly low-lying land. If climate change plays out as predicted, residents may be impacted by rising seas, destruction of soil fertility via increased salinity, and increased chance of devastating cyclones. We walked knee-deep through mud and water to reach newly upraised land these men and women call home, and came home to fill our evening with song and strategy.

We tell most strangers that we're from Kolkata. It is techically true, as that's where we entered Bangladesh from, but we enjoy the fact that it makes for a simpler story and a lower profile than the truth. (Who wants to explain three sets of immigration histories? Or that B and I are Americans, giving vendors the go-ahead to try to fleece us?)

In Dhaka, folks are generally pretty happy to hear that's we're from Kolkata. Some ask us how we like their city or country. Others share stores of trips to Kolkata or elsewhere in India, or of Indians they've met in the course of work. But in Noakhali, a relatively small town, telling folks that we're from Kolkata, India got us a lot of attention.

We think of India and Bangladesh as being like the US and Canada -- two neighboring countries that aren't fundamentally all that different. Even if one hadn't been to the other country, it my mind, we were alike enough. But at our guesthouse, at the nearby tea shop, and particularly at local restaurants, some folks we talked to were wide-eyed. As Indians, we were treated the way "real" foreigners would have been. But those real foreigners--the white and East Asian businesspeople, NGO workers, and tourists we saw in Dhaka--don't make it out to places like Noakhali in large numbers. In Noakhali, India's foreign enough. The crowd of restaurant service workers huddled around us during lunch and dinner asked questions, were thrilled to hear us tell them what we thought about their city and their country. We gave a particularly curious nineteen year old, a restaurant employee midway through his daily 12-hour shift, a souvenir from our country: an Indian ten rupee note. He broke out in a massive grin, thrilled, and finally unable to speak in his sheer excitement. B and I kept talking about the wonder and pathos of his grin.

We felt like rock stars, or space aliens. We felt white. We sometimes had to remind folks that India was also a developing country, like Bangladesh, and that they had major cities like Dhaka at home.

So why was India such a big deal here? It seemed to center around money. We tried to figure out all the ways locals might get their information. Even in Bangladesh's largely self-sufficient media market, India was still a major exporter of mass culture, including Bollywood movies and Bengali TV shows, many of which show well-fed upper-middle to upper-class people. Offline, the only Indians some locals saw in person were international travelers, often middle-class or above. Finally, some residents may have had first-hand experience, a few as travelers, and perhaps others as undocumented workers, coming from a city known for sending many young to work abroad.

For some local residents, what we had parsed as a Canada-US relationship may have been more like a Mexico-US relationship, with India not just a powerful neighbor, but a superpower, a source of culture, wealth, and employment--with all that implies. Indians don't know what kind of soft power they have--if only they were to stop focusing on governments and think about people-to-people relationships.

We got up early Saturday to take a local bus from Dhaka to Noakhali District, best known to Indians as the site of Muslim-Hindu religious violence sixty years ago. We arrived in about 4 hours, and were met by our online friend Masud, who took us to a local guesthouse, and then to meet members of his NGO, PRAN, where we spent the rest of the day interviewing, sharing, and chatting about climate issues (more on this elsewhere).

One of the things we noticed while talking to PRAN staff, utterly unrelated to the content of our conversation, is how well they spoke Bengali. They weren't alone. Bangladeshis generally seem to speak excellent Bengali, unlike many West Bengalis, who frequently produce Bengali peppered with (and sometimes replaced by) English or Hindi, presumably from osmosis living in a tremendously linguistically-diverse part of the world.

People of a certain class in West Bengal seem to speak "Benglish" more than they do Bengali. I've never heard Bangladeshis say things like "আমরা feel করছি" -- incorporating English words into even very simple Bengali speech, something not at all unknown in West Bengal. I'm not at all against incorporating foreign expressions and vocabulary into one's language; but after hearing such lovely Bengali in Bangladesh, the contrast makes clear to me that what I hear on the other side of the border is more of a linguistic hybrid than I'd ever realized.

I'd assumed the biggest linguistic difference between West Bengal and Bangladesh would be different regional accents and terms. I was even listening to Bangladeshi podcasts, to acclimate myself to the accent. But understanding the accent's been a breeze, compared to understanding the larger spoken vocabulary; I should have been listening to podcasts for the vocabulary, not accent. I'm surprised that "they" speak our language much better than "us," in spite of all the pride West Bengalis take in their love of the language (and the occasional jibes at the Bangladeshi accent). It's nice to have one's assumptions questioned.

We'd fallen in love with Dhaka's rickshaw art--the graphic images on the back of cycle-rickshaws all over town. So we headed to "Bicycle Street," the wholesale marketplace where rickshaw owners buy art for their machines. But Friday was a holiday, something we hadn't counted on. We were disappointed to see the area entirely closed up, so we wandered the neighborhood, and then took a fun traffic-free rickshaw ride to the lovely Sitara Mosque, then to Lalbagh Fort. Finally, we walked to Dhakeswari Temple, where local middle/upper-class Hindu Bengalis were celebrating Saraswati Puja; it felt like the expat Hindu Bengali events I'd grown up around.

Lalbagh Fort was the high point of my day, perhaps of my week. It's a Mughal era fortress complex, very nicely preserved, along with the surrounding grounds. It was fun to look at, but the real excitement began when the grounds began to slowly fill up with Dhaka residents out enjoying a weekend afternoon in beautiful surroundings. This place that was once a space for royalty had now been taken over by the masses. We had stumbled upon people-watching heaven.

We saw groups of women hanging out, kids playing running games, families dressed up for a day out. Several athletic young men bounded over a very tall fence into a prohibited area; when a police officer came by, they sheepishly climbed back over, one by one. A woman in a hijab confided to a friend on her cell phone; it sounded like her parents had gotten in the way of her last relationship. An older women and a pre-teen girl walked by the central building, peering through the windows, trying to see what was inside. A group of well-dressed thirtysomething men and women sat in the grass, huddled around a laptop. Children played, running up hillocks in the grass, and helping each other lower themselves into a garden water tank that looked like a empty swimming pool.

And then there were all the young couples--pairs of men and women sitting together in the grass, on ledges, between bushes. They created a private world around them, smiling, sometimes holding hands, ignoring everyone else nearby. The couples-sitting-in-the-park phenomenon is pretty common in India as well, as young lovers have limited access to private space away from family. I've heard people express irritation at how parks taken over by smoochy couples limits access for other users, but that wasn't happening here. I almost wished we were one of them. The grounds on this Friday afternoon was a lovely vision of all kinds of people enjoying themselves in happy coexistence.

Sharing this historic setting with a colorful local crowd on an ordinary weekend afternoon was one of our most memorable travel experiences, but we wouldn't have known it from our Lonely Planet. Some of the happiest moments on our trip have involved people-watching at parks, plazas, and shopping malls. I love serendipity, but I wish travel guide authors would help us out a bit more; we can't be the only ones who enjoy seeing people as much as seeing a string of sights.

B, her dad, and I hired a car for the day and hit the road. First, we hit the Jatiyo Smriti Shoudho in Savar, a memorial to the hundreds of thousands who died during the liberation war. Then off to nearby Dhamrai to see an artisan workshop creating bronze sculpture using a traditional "lost wax" technique. Finally, a quick stop at the Sat Gumbad mosque, built in 1680, and to the National Assembly building, completed in 1982.

Being in a Muslim-majority nation feels weirdly liberating. As a young brown man with a beard living in post-9/11 America, I fit the rough stereotype of Young Muslim Male. It may not be a problem 99% of the time, but I can't entirely escape a racialized consciousness; there's a reason why my parents ask me to shave my beard, why I'm particularly well-behaved at airports, why seeing trucks or motorcycles carrying American flags makes me worry about my safety. I enjoy the fact that in a majority-Muslim country where I sort of look like everyone else, that sense of racialization disappears entirely. The streets are full of clean-cut bearded guys. I may not pass as a local everyman (I'm presumably being read at first glance as a possibly-Muslim upper-class urbanite), but no one would mistake me as dangerous because I might "look Muslim."

Being in 90%-Muslim Bangladesh has also made me feel very much part of a Hindu tribe (9% of the population). Walking around in Old Dhaka with B and her dad, we met a Hindu storekeeper with family near where B's family lives; the pictures of Hindu gods in the store jumped out at me among all his neighbors' culturally-Muslim paraphernalia. We went on to walk through Dhaka's "Hindu Street," seeing crowds of happy Hindu families celebrating Saraswati Puja. At the Liberation War Museum, we met a helpful museum employee; when we asked for directions to a local temple, it was immediately clear she was Hindu. In Dhamrai, we visited Dhamrai Metal Craft, an artisan workshop creating bronze sculptures via an intricate "lost wax" technique. The Banik family that runs the space are locally-prominent Hindus in a community that was once majority-Hindu, but has gained a large Muslim population since the 1971 war. It felt like we self-censored when discussion turned to local (i.e. Muslim) reactions to Hindu religious figures in the presence of our Muslim driver, not wanting to cause offense.

Within our first few days here, we've had several interactions with other Hindus, and the level of quick intimacy has been surprising. We often jump very quickly to issues of safety in the wake of decades of rising and falling anti-Hindu sentiment. Hindus we've spoken to understand the dangers of anti-minority fundamentalism--both anti-Hindu sentiment in Bangladesh as well as anti-Muslim sentiment in India. I can be as philosophically humanist as I want to, but in a situation where there are only two tribes that matter, and that tribal identity is fixed at birth, and embedded in one's name, family customs, and personal habits, it's hard to opt out.

When strangers find out we're visiting via Kolkata, there have been a few instances when we've been very politely asked what religion we follow. We've never hesitated to answer "Hindu," and the answer's invariably been met with smiles. "Ah, so you must not eat beef" surmised an employee at a small-town restaurant where we'd puzzlingly ordered only fish and vegetable dishes. Another man went out of his way to emphasize that he held no communal (i.e. "racial") sentiments, expressing that we're all Bengali, and that he was happy to live in harmony with his Hindu neighbors. We've had a few long conversations spring up. I realize good feelings on an interpersonal basis are complicated by histories of anti-Hindu discrimination, driving millions of Hindus from the region into India as refugees--and yet Bangladeshis are by far the nicest people we've met on our trip, and it's been a delight sharing moments of friendly exchange across barriers.

Racialized identity is complex. If I'm Muslim-identified living in the US (i.e. "Arab/Muslim/South Asian"), I'm equally happy being Hindu-identified in Bangladesh. After all:

"Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10 p.m., a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains." --Subcomandante Marcos

We woke up early the next day to run errands, then off to the Liberation War Museum. We  spent the afternoon with friends old and new, meandering through crowded allies in Old Dhaka, and checking out local Hindu Saraswati Puja pandals (community altars).

Dhaka's Liberation War Museum documents the struggles of Bangladeshis to win political and cultural autonomy, culminating in independence in 1971. (The standard outline: when India and Pakistan gained freedom from Britain in 1947, geographically-separated but majority-Muslim Bangladesh and Pakistan (then "East Pakistan" and "West Pakistan") were lumped into the common Muslim nation of Pakistan. West Pakistani leaders clamped down on Bangladesh's Hindu/Muslim hybrid language and culture, and engaged in economic exploitation. Bangladeshis fought back, first within the system, then calling for more autonomy, and finally winning independence in the face of a West Pakistani military campaign of mass repression, rape, and murder.) The Liberation War Museum is excellent, with a wide range of exhibits, and very clear paragraph-length descriptions for each object. We walked away with a PDA full of notes on names and stories to research. It's all fine and good to speak of people's struggles in impersonal terms, but the museum was effective in bringing three decades of struggle down to a human level:

  • a newspaper clipping reporting the Pakistan government's banning radio stations from broadcasting works by Bengali Nobel Prize winner (and Hindu) Rabindranath Tagore
  • an photo of a female student leader at Dhaka University, standing up to police repression
  • stories and personal articles of soldiers who died in the war
  • lovely liberation war posters, calling for pan-Bengali cultural unity across religious lines
  • photographs, and skulls, of the dead, murdered by West Pakistanis

The loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat to a Republican was in our heads that day. Signage at The Liberation War Museum described Ted Kennedy's role as an ally to the Bengali people in the face of Nixon's pro-Pakistan anti-Bangladesh stance; a photograph shows him with Mother Teresa, visiting an Indian camp for Bangladeshi refugees fleeing Pakistani terror. The very previous day, we'd read an editorial in the newspaper calling on the government of Bangladesh to honor critical foreign supporters like Ted Kennedy.

It's very hard being half a world away, and seeing all the good that can be done by a lone senator from Massachusetts with a penchant for international human rights -- and then seeing that seat occupied by a man best known nationally for railing against the health care reform process. Whether we like it or not, our provincial domestic U.S. politics casts a long shadow around the world.

We spent our first day in Bangladesh at the Indian consulate trying to make sure we could get back into India (a matter still in limbo), before exploring the Gulshan neighborhood of Dhaka, littered with expensive homes, and financial and NGO offices.

A recent Indian "anti-terrorist" policy bars most travelers from re-entering within 60 days of their last exit. This keeps tourists from using India as a base to explore nearby countries, or Indians abroad from making emergency family visits after a previous trip. This was big news in India, with the Minister of State for External Affairs criticizing the policy on Twitter, and then facing a barrage of criticism for expressing opinions without going through bureaucratic channels.

Indian officials stated that this will impact very few genuine travelers; turns turns out we're one of them, since we'd been planning to take a side trip to Bangladesh from India with B's dad. Officials also announced relaxation of the rules for genuine travelers, something we double-checked with US and Indian government offices and websites. Our trip was fine, an Indian consular official in Dhaka told us -- all we had to do was get someone at the Dhaka Indian consulate to endorse our re-entry as genuine travelers, per those newly relaxed rules.

We spent several hours of our first full day in Bangladesh at the Indian consulate, trying to get someone who knew what was going on. Folks we spoke to hadn't even heard of the "no re-entry within 60 days" rule, let alone the subsequent relaxation. B had a fit, experiencing massive bureaucratic incompetence that might keep her from being able to go back to the country she grew up in.

B, her dad, and I have since made another visit to the consulate, made several phone calls, and sent some frantic emails. We're cautiously optimistic that we'll be able to work our way through this Indian bureaucratic nightmare to finish our family trip in India, but the situation isn't clear. Our Bangladesh visa runs out in about two weeks, and unless we get permission to return to India, we'll have to cancel our plans and self-deport to a third country.

It's unfortunate that we're having to waste time during our visit to Bangladesh dealing with idiotic policies. We'd promised B's mom and my 93-year-old grandfather that we'd come back and see them; it's misguided policy if this is being put under the category of evil terroristic acts.