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Many people have not heard of Aaron Swartz but chances are they have benefited from his ideas. The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is a moving documentary that recounts Swartz's life as an internet prodigy and activist. Swartz's family, Lawrence Lessig, and web inventor Tim Berners-Lee among others speak about Aaron's genius and the beliefs he held which led him to turn his back on the corporate world and to the fight for internet freedom. 

The film chronicles Swartz’s childhood and the various projects he helped develop—from the Creative Commons platform, to Reddit, to the victorious campaign to stop SOPA, a bill that would have infringed on internet users’ First Amendment rights as well as web innovation. 

It then goes on to cover the dire fallout Swartz faced after he was found downloading a large number of academic journal articles from JSTOR on the campus of MIT. Although JSTOR dropped charges against Swartz, the federal government continued to pursue charges and indicted him under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (which came into effect in 1986). After two years of immense pressure concerning the case and potentially facing 35 years of incarceration, Swartz committed suicide at the age of 26. The grief of those close to Swartz is palpable as is anger directed at the government’s prosecution and MIT. Lessig says, "We are standing in the middle of a time when great injustice is not touched. Architects of the financial meltdown have dinner with the president regularly. In the middle of that time, the idea that this is what the government had to prosecute, just seems absurd, if it weren't tragic." 

While one can't help but wonder what Swartz would have accomplished, it is a futile exercise. Instead, we can look to the legacy he has left. Not only are there key web tools like RSS and Creative Commons, but there's the more abstract ideas that he lived by: a fervent belief that knowledge should be open and that every person can bring change. In fact, at the film's end is the story of Jack Andraka, a 14-year old student who used free journal articles to develop a test for pancreatic cancer and noted the importance of Swartz's work. Activist and author Cory Doctorow commented, "Without access, the person who might come up with the thing that's got your number on it, may never find that answer." Additionally, Aaron's Law is a bill that has been introduced which would reform the outdated Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. 

Photo by Sage Ross, licensed under Creative Commons.



The graphic novel might not be the first format that comes to mind in recounting a historical trial, but it works remarkably well in The United States vs. Private Chelsea Manning. Activist and artist Clark Stoeckley attended many of the proceedings which took place in Fort Meade, Maryland and uses unofficial transcribed testimony (the official records are not available to the public) for much of the text.

The book opens on December 16, 2011 at a pretrial hearing and introduces us to Manning's lead defense lawyer, David Coombs. It continues chronologically as the judge makes rulings and various witnesses and experts are brought to the stand. Stoeckley integrates scenes from within the courtroom with other visuals such as drawings derived from the so-called 'Collateral Murder' video, which was released by WikiLeaks, and shows U.S. forces shooting at children and then killing two Reuters journalists in an incident in Iraq.  

Aside from the visual aspect of the book, the book is driven by the testimony which sheds light on issues about the journalistic nature of WikiLeaks, Manning's mental state, and the affect of the released documents on national security. There is more text than many other graphic novels have, with stretches of dialogue and statements as well as explanations of legalese. Manning's testimony is especially telling since his public statements were so limited. He (I refer to Manning as ‘he’ until the official statement about his gender transition, which is not until after the trial) speaks about being held in confinement, deployment to Iraq, and his reasoning for exposing the documents. Manning says, "I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets to neutralize, but rather people struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare."

Through the text and the drawings, Stoeckley manages to capture both the prosecution and the defense’s arguments and the varied aspects of the trial (ranging from documents about Guantanamo to Manning’s troubled family life). The book ends with the verdict and Manning's announcement that she will live as a woman. She is currently serving a 35 year sentence in a federal prison and is in the process of bringing an appeal.


The story of Reykjavik's unconventional anarchist punk mayor. 

Jón Gnarr created the satirical Best Party in Iceland as a response to the country's dissatisfaction with the political system's response following the financial crisis which hit Iceland particularly hard. 
In Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, he reflects on his beliefs and the experiences that led him into the mayoral position. 

The book has elements of memoir, political theory, Icelandic culture, and even some self-help-like snippets. It's a wide spectrum of topics but they all go together after getting an idea of Gnarr's unconventional personality. As a child he was diagnosed with severe learning disabilities and ADHD, and grew up with an abusive father. In his teenage years, he got into punk music which introduced him to anarchism. As an adult he landed in a number of jobs including taxi driver and comedian, which is something he became known for. Initially the Best Party started off as a joke, but the party's platform (ranging from tickets to Disneyland to a real commitment to human rights) quickly amassed an audience and he became mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland's only big city. 

Some of the chapters are previously published interviews as well as the letter he wrote to Obama, while others chronicle the campaign, his work-family balance, and his political beliefs on subjects like NATO. 

For readers in the U.S., some of the ideas he presents are a bit unfamiliar. Forming a coalition government isn't something that's done since there are only two parties that have any real power in the U.S. Some of the Icelandic cultural norms might also seem strange, like the difficulty he has in changing his name (all names and name changes go through a rigid system of approval by the Icelandic Naming Committee) or the importance of sheep. Additionally the sheer honesty in his actions and beliefs is pretty rare for a politician. As someone who identifies with anarchy, atheism, and is even known to occasionally cross-dress, it's hard to imagine any like-minded person being elected in the U.S. 

Gnarr did not seek a second term as mayor even though he probably would have won and it remains to be seen where his life will lead. But I expect his vision for working toward a truly democratic society and being slightly outlandish while doing so will surely continue.


looking into you

Utne Reader is proud to premiere the video of blues rocker Paul Thorn's cover of Jackson Browne's "Doctor My Eyes," which is off the new Jackson Browne tribute album Looking Into You, out now on Music Road Records. 

Album producer Tamara Saviano offered some thoughts on Thorn's contribution to the album: 

Can you go into the story behind the tribute album? What sparked its creation and what was your goal with it?
The tribute album is the creative brain child of Kelcy Warren. Kelcy hired me to produce the album because he liked my work on previous tribute albums. I pulled the pieces together on this one but it was Kelcy's idea and he came up with the wish list for the artists and songs ... I just ran with it and my goal was to deliver the best album I could.

How do you think Paul Thorn reinterpretated "Doctor My Eyes?" What does his rendition bring to the song?
Paul Thorn is such an independent spirit and he adds his own cool, southern signature on everything he does. His rendition of "Doctor My Eyes" is no different. He took Jackson's song and made it his own. One of the things I love about tribute albums is the opportunity to showcase how a writer's work can be reinterpreted and rearranged and the song still stands the test of time. Paul certainly did that with "Doctor My Eyes."

What was like working in the studio on this project with so many iconic artists?
I was not in the studio for all of the sessions as I live in Nashville and sessions were done in many different cities. The sessions I attended were magical. I had a great time working with all of the artists and their managers and publicists whether I was in the studio or not. It was a joyful experience to see how much everyone loves and admires Jackson and wanted to honor him. Many of the artists had to rearrange schedules and change tour routings to be able to make it work. They all spent a lot of time thinking about the song and how they wanted to record. Kelcy's wish was that each artist have the creative freedom to arrange and record the song the way they wanted to do it. It was fun for me to help each artist get to that place.


In journalist Matt Taibbi's latest book, The Divide, readers are lead through a justice system which is full of injustices.

The sections of Matt Taibbi's latest book, The Divide, vacillate between two different worlds: the first is one of impunity, where crimes take place on a massive scale and no one is held responsible; the other realm is inhabited with minor crimes, or in some cases, no crime at all, yet people are investigated, abused or prosecuted under the fullest extent of the law (and sometimes beyond the law). Taibbi's argument is that one of these worlds can exist, but both should not exist simultaneously. Yet that's what the legal system in the U.S. has devolved into. He writes, "The rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other." And this is a fact society has come to accept—some people just have more rights than others.

The book reads well because it intertwines individual stories which illustrate how the system works as a whole. In his reporting for the book, Taibbi follows a number of people as they make their way through the legal system. In doing so, he shows how pervasive the justice system is—from policies relating to immigration, stop and frisk, and the prison industrial complex. He also shows how one misstep can have lifelong implications, especially if you fall into a certain racial group.

the divide

Taibbi contrasts this with the financial crimes that led to the recession, pointing out that 40 percent of the world's wealth was obliterated yet no high ranking executive saw the inside of a prison cell. While major banks such as Bank of America have paid out million and even billion dollar settlements, they avoid criminal prosecution and admitting responsibility. There are a multitude of excuses for not pressing criminal charges: from so-called collateral damage (in which all employees at an investment firm would be punished if the firm goes down) to drawn out lawsuits to complications with pinpointing individuals within a company to prosecute. However Taibbi argues that taking large sum settlements is not only ineffective as a deterrent, but that it’s the coward's way out. While there is a heap of evidence (throughout the book there are emails and text messages he obtained which blithely show evidence of insider trading), the willpower to use it is lacking. The only downfall in his writing is that some of the financial concepts are a bit hazy. I’m still not sure what a derivative is or what short selling a stock really means.

Interspersed with the situations that Taibbi writes about are illustrations by Molly Crabapple that are symbolic and intricate. Her unique style adds a visual flair and even personalizes the stories with portraits of some of the individuals profiled.

I think one of the book's main points is to show the absurdity of it all. An inordinate amount of time and money is spent investigating individual welfare applicants yet not the financial fraud that caused the emptying of pension funds and mass home foreclosures. And while the government has spent millions prosecuting and jailing marijuana users, HSBC gets away with laundering money for a notoriously violent Mexican drug cartel. Taibbi's deeply researched book delves into these irrationalities, so if you’re interested in understanding what the justice system really looks like, The Divide is worth your undivided attention.



The 40-minute documentary Spent: Looking For Change tells the story of Justin, Tiffany, Melissa, Alex, and Debbie—and nearly 70 million other Americans. That’s the number of people who fall outside the traditional banking system and use services like payday lenders and title loans. While these services fill a needed role for those without a bank account, they also create a cycle of fees and interest that can be difficult to break free from.

Melissa and Alex—a couple from Rhode Island—fell on hard times when their son was diagnosed with autism and Alex was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis which forced him to leave his job. In an effort to keep up with the regular bills for things like electricity as well as the added medical costs, they ended up taking a small loan out for $450. This eventually turned into $1700 in fees and interest.

Debbie is a handbag designer who is seeing some success in selling her products. However with student debt in the six-figures, she is only able to purchase the materials for the bags in small quantities. Because her credit line is so small, she would be unable to take on a high value order should she be approached by a major boutique or retailer.

We watch as one mother’s car is towed away and another mother spends time and gas paying bills because she does not have an online banking account. These stories and others shed a light on the tribulations that people encounter because they are “unbanked.” An increasing amount of people who are turning to these services are considered middle class and the film cites the fact that almost half of the households in the U.S. do not have $2,000 in reserves should they face an emergency situation.

The film also mentions some new initiatives that address ways to bank outside the system more effectively or avenues to help people get approved for bank accounts and small business loans. In San Francisco, communities are pooling their money in order to form a fairer lending system and in Atlanta, an organization is working to widen the criteria from which credit scores are generated.    

However the documentary fails to touch on the root causes. While it may be beyond its scope, the deeper problems that force individuals into using these services should be considered. If people had living wages, affordable health care, and affordable higher education, perhaps there would be much less of a need for payday lenders and other such alternative financial services.  

Another caveat to the piece is that it is sponsored by a major credit card company, American Express, and the film’s website basically advertises some American Express services. That said, the documentary is worth the time as the stories and statistics are important ones. It can be seen in full here:

Photo by Roadsidepictures, licensed under Creative Commons.


mark oconnor

Utne Reader is proud to premiere violinist Mark O'Connor's version of the Duke Ellington standard "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" off his new record, MOC4, out June 10 on OMAC Records

It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) by Mark O'Connor on Grooveshark

According to a press release, MOC4 finds Mark O'Connor reinterpreting an eclectic collection of classic American songs, proving that the violin, though often praised for its triumphs within European classical music, can be given new life in the realm of American classical, blues, jazz, bluegrass, spirituals, rock, ragtime and more. The album also features collaborations with six of his past violin mentees, and coincides with the release of Mark's latest music education book as part of his revolutionary teaching program the O'Connor Method. The method bases string-centric music education on American musical literature and creativity to attract and engage students, as opposed to the study of mostly all European classical pieces emphasized in alternative programs. His annual string camp at the Berklee College of Music will be held June 23-27. While you listen to the song, learn more about the man behind the music and the method: 

Can you give a brief recap of your experience as a child prodigy and how you developed as a musician growing up? How did your perspective of the violin and string music evolve?

Mark O'Connor: I was able to learn about what I refer to as the "four pillars of string playing" all by the time I was a mid teenager: Folk Fiddling, Classical, Jazz, and World Music. I was astonished when I found out there was almost no string player in the U.S., or in the world for that matter with those wonderful combinations of experiences. I always thought it was a strength to have that kind of background in learning music and I wanted to share the gift I had with the world of string students. I realized that it was simply what the "American School" should be all about. No one had ever come up with what the American School of String Playing should be. And so I did. Our strength in America has been our diversity and as it should be here with string music education.

Can you briefly explain the O'Connor Method and what your goals are with it?

MO: There are many goals with any methodology, but the set of goals that a great music methodology should provide includes a track towards being a professional musician, an excellent musician or an average musician, but one who also falls in love with music. They all need to be covered within the same lesson plan and approach to learning. I am lucky that I have American music materials at my back, and there are no better materials in 2014 to accomplish this goal with. Creativity is universal - we all want it. And we can get it through American music literature, performance settings, improvisation, cultural diversity, rhythm, tune writing, band playing, orchestra playing, and personal expression. This is going to make a difference in string education.

What are you trying to say with MOC4?

MO: MOC4 represents the staple music for the American violin, but here in the advanced levels. This really is for string players to see the nuts and bolts of American string music language and all of its wonderful tributaries. I am stating that this CD and the companion, O’Connor Method Book IV, is the new essential. To ignore all of these styles, preventing the student from learning these things, is to discount musical knowledge now. The musical bridges are not only present between American styles, but they are essential. If knowledge is essential, than the musician must cross the bridge.


MOC4 features collaborations with several young violinists you mentored. What sparked these collaborations and what was it like recording with them?

MO: One of the strengths of my educational concept for string playing is to get people playing together. Not imitating each other in unison, but complimenting each other with harmony and rhythm - the other two definitions of music aside from melody. My violin duos play a role in this. My hope is that you will see these violin duos pop up all over the place in student recitals or on the professional stage. Inspired by the series of Bela Bartok violin duos (oddly he used to live in the 1940s, next door to where I live now in Manhattan), but it is my American fiddle version of this approach. To share the six duo recordings with six violinists who I have mentored, taught and shared my other music with for many years was quite a treat for me to have happen. What a great message to present, one of nurturing, sharing and giving thanks, and of course celebrating their excellence as players.

What was your favorite thing about arranging and recording ‘MOC4’?

MO: It was simply this: That it could quite possibly influence a million violin players in the coming years. And to think of how many people those million violinists will in turn perform for, to put a smile on people's face. It was exhilarating to be in this position and try to deliver.

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