From the archives: Highland Park teen is finalist in web competition
Jan 12, 2013 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
JUNE 23, 2000 -- Getting "real information" to people on the World Wide Web is 13-year-old Aaron Swartz's job. He's tired of all the banner ads, the sponsorships and other miscellaneous "junk" hogging the screens.
"That's not what the Internet was made for. It was based on open standards and freedom, not ads," said Swartz of Highland Park, the youngest of 10 finalists in the annual Arsdigita Foundation Teen Web Site Contest.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer science instructor Philip Greenspun founded ArsDigita Inc., an open-source software company specializing in the development of Web-based applications and utilities. Now in its second year, the foundation established a $10,000 prize for the best noncommercial Web site developed by someone 18 or younger.
This year, the foundation received about 150 entries from kids across the globe, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands, Murphy said. Greenspun and a panel selected the 10 finalists.
The winner was 18-year-old Ara Anjargolian of Glendale, Calif., for his www.secondsaver.com personal Web assistant site that can be used as a calendar with the ability to e-mail, view, edit and print a schedule.
Anjargolian received $10,000 and will attend a week-long computer science boot camp and have full disposal to a Sun Microsystems server.
Two team prizes also were awarded this year: OpenWeasel Web Portal Toolkit (www.openweasel.org) constructors, Andrew Widdowson, Dan Blanchard and Greg Moyer, all of Fleetwood, Penn., for their program providing users the means with which to make an Internet or intranet portal; and Ara Mahdessian and Arthur Chaparyan, of Glendale, Calif., for their Visual Basic Development Center (www.dev-center.com).
But all the finalists are essentially winners, said Stephanie Murphy, foundation spokeswoman. "The money isn't the point of the contest. All the finalists still get some cash ($1,000) and attend the one-week computer training boot camp," she said.
They also get to meet high-tech luminaries, including Tim Berners-Lee, developer of the Web and Greenspun, who Swartz described as "a pretty neat guy."
"From his Web site (www.philip.greenspun.com), you get this picture of a person who's a combination of funny, smart and knows about computers," he said.
Greenspun was into open source software before it was hip. He put up Photo.net, which started as his home page and grew to serve 50,000 users educating each other to become better photographers. Now Swartz is spinning off that idea.
Swartz's contending creation was The Info Network (www.theinfo.org), an ever-growing encyclopedia-like site filled with "a vast repository of human knowledge" focused on content -- real information for people to use, as he calls it.
The site works like this: Anyone can submit information about what they know in a totally open environment, which means they can add to the information freely.
"In the style of the popular GNU/Linux operating system,"Swartz added.
Users are allowed to edit another's submission, but the program will always copy any original material so as not to permanently overwrite any copy.
Swartz' online encyclopedia include sections on art, with subsections on rubber stamping and square dancing; a section on science, with subsections on treating burns and finding out what a palindrome is; and a chapter on life, with subsections on genealogy and religion.
It was two summers ago that Swartz starting toying with the idea of building such a site.
"I spent my days typing away at the keyboard, bringing my ideas into action," he said.
Swartz said the kicker was when he realized (although it may have been easy for him) that it was really hard for people to post information online. "You have to set up a server, find a place to host it, learn HTML, or learn to use a Web editing program," he said.
So he got to work, programming the entire site himself, writing it in Tool Command Language, which Swartz said was best choice after much research.
The eighth-grader at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka said he was introduced to the world of computers when his Dad, a computer consultant, bought him the first generation Apple Macintosh. That was eons ago. Today, Swartz is the proud owner of an Apple iBook. "In blueberry," he said.
It's no surprise that Greenspun is on the same wavelength as these whiz kids. At 14, Greenspun began his college career at MIT. He graduated at 18.
"He understands the mindset of these kids and he's great at connecting with these kids because he's so passionate about the Web," Murphy, the foundation spokeswoman, said. "When you help build something, you feel a part of it."
"He wants to see an impact on the Web in 50 years from now from these kids. They are the next generation of programmers," Murphy said.
Swartz has already planned his next venture in cyberspace -- a news site called "MyInfo" that has the capability to go out and gather the most pertinent news articles from various sites on the Internet, combining the information according to the user's desire.
"I also want to build a software company that would publish the underlying source code for every program it produces, even letting non-customers download the source code and use it free of charge," Swartz said.
A Greenspun in the making
"Yeah," Swartz said.
Swartz' crystal ball for programming is that we'll soon see people writing programs that talk to other programs.
"Right now, everything's written to talk to other humans," he said. "It will be a lot more powerful when programs talk to each other because you won't need a human to get involved."
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