Book review: Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow.

A friend recommended this book to me, but with reservation, because he said it was preachy. I read it, and throughout my reading, I kept asking him what he meant by preachy. He could never quite explain himself. I don’t think it’s preachy.


Hell, maybe I’m preachy. Anyway, I read the book in two sittings.


Cory Doctorow is some kind of author, let me tell you. He breaks all the rules of writing in this book, inserting multi-page monologues on how information works in the real meat world, but it’s all so relevant and informed that I often had to recall what was happening with the story as I got caught up in memories of laughing at “security” systems, or considering cool hacks from the book. From the day a kind gentleman at DefCon showed me a key combination to access the maintenance menu on a specific brand of ATM, I was fascinated by hackers.


Not hacking myself, no, I was much too law-abiding for that, didn’t trust myself with math because of my awful high school geometry teacher who used geometry class to preach to us about Mormonism, rather than to teach us proofs. To get back at her, I started a public access program on public television in Pocatello, ID talking about the fallacies of Mormonism and the benefits of alternative views, like Shamanistic traditions and atheism.

“I believe, that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America..!”


Hey, you get ostracized by the 80% dominant religion in your home town and come away without at least gently ribbing them. Anyway, they’re having a schism now, they have bigger things to worry about. And they’re friendlier than Scientology.


Random factoid: There are no intelligible Google results for “people who read suck” on the first page.

</nerdiness> <nerdiness>

I used to read Discworld, I am very sad about Sir Terry Pratchett. He is dying of a particular kind of Alzheimer’s, and supports the right to die, so my dream of getting a book of mine in his hand before he dies is basically never going to happen. He could pop off at any moment now, and I would not blame him. Still, he got knighted for writing funny fantasy for a reason: it’s Harry Potter quality with tons of historical references and research and sarcasm and wit, tons of it. His character Sam Vimes will inspire gentle police officers for generations to come, if they read him. Little Brother also deals with police brutality and torture. And well.

He is a living legend. His books have changed me, man.


Kind of like Doctorow’s! So this was about Little Brother.


Little Brother is chock full of practical information on how to be a well-informed citizen in a society which contains a government that tracks its citizenry’s every move. It extends even further, today, because now not only the government is tracking people, but private companies as well. As they say, social networks have turned their users into the product.


It’s also got California culture down. This place is a different country than living in other parts of the States, folks. I’ve been to most of the United States, and lived in a fifth of them, and let me tell you, California is different, and this book captures some of it. You really can trust the California Highway Patrol to not be inordinate dicks most of the time, for instance. He gets California interdependence and feistyness right. And a great California romance. This is not just a great Young Adult novel, it’s a great book.


I made the decision a long time ago to make my writing open-source. This means that, to avoid trouble, I censor an awful lot of what I would otherwise talk about. I am whimsical in nature, which can be seen in my writing, and often say things that, if captured in public, might be legally actionable. I did not realize the need for self-censorship until I saw that people were being SWATted by local authorities to get revenge for political speech.

Guess who else gets SWATted: celebrities!


The problem with the systems going in place pursuant to the Patriot Act and other similar legislation, Little Brother points out, is not necessarily the government existing – it doesn’t go that far, he avoids anarchism. It’s the idea of security that is flawed, the thought that with enough manpower, control, oversight, we can have a perfectly safe panopticon where an outsider or wrongdoer is obvious and dealt with on sight. Maybe this idea is appealing for some people, but not those who align with the protagonist, Marcus Yallow, who struck me as just a little bit wise for a 17 year old, but hell, it happens. It’s part of Doctorow’s ability to explain technology, with a little work by the reader, such that an almost working knowledge is imparted.

George Orwell’s 1984 discusses the real-life implementation of a sort of cultural panopticon. Everyone should read it.


The adventure in the story never stops. Never even slows down. It had me turning pages and avoiding work at work in the library. I put it down feeling like there were some good guys in our world, and they had worked on this book. I remembered seeing Bruce Schneier at DefCon and wondering what the big deal was. Then, years later, I heard him pointing out in the news that none of the security actually made us any more secure. That was a big deal to me, I despise airline security, the War on Drugs, and the general police state, which he criticizes expertly by putting the reader in it. And now our police are getting military equipment, which he also brings to light.


That’s the thing about Little Brother. It was a big deal to me. I haven’t made a big deal about a book in ages, not since Good Omens.


I think everyone should read it. It’s a fun primer on how to be a digitally autonomous citizen, which takes a little work, but worthy work.


Oh, and true to form, it’s free on his website.

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Lady hacker delivers excellent TED talk.

A possibly Saiyan hacker with unapologetic affinity for Hackers, the movie, won my heart and my blog post in this TED talk.


I wanted to be a hacker when I was a teenager, but disliked the idea of jail. But, hackers had a convention. Conventions, for the uninitiated, are special gatherings where human culture is often suspended for multiple days in favor of small, private bacchanals and/or conversations the likes of which would make a strict Mormon cry and question his place in the world.

DefCon (In various Las Vegas, NV hotel-casinos but mostly the Alexis Park) was the first place I, a teenager from a 649-person town in southeast Idaho, had ever gone on my own. A funny thing: at early DefCons, reporters didn’t care if you looked like a crusty piece of teenaged angst, they assumed you were at DefCon because you were in tune with something they barely understood. If you had a badge, you were in, and you were interesting, and all the real hackers wouldn’t say shit to anyone, so my 16-21-year old camera-happy self was happy to babble second-hand inferences and other nonsense at the press. I tagged along with one journalist (journalist? who knows. No one really knows who is who there unless they already know them, it’s both Vegas and DefCon for chrissakes) who went by the moniker Selena Kyle and whose main desire was to have a meal with Bruce Schneier. She had lunch with him. She was short and pretty and the most well-spoken lady I’d ever met. I met someone else who went by Tananda and wore a tiger tail and introduced me to Rammstein in 1997 or 1998.

I got a hug from a beautiful news lady from Tech TV after having a fun conversation with her, picked up a hacker handle that no one but me remembers, stayed up for 5 days straight on odd combinations of food, alcohol, but mostly a shit-ton of caffeine, and whatever was put into whatever strange craft beer I had just accepted. Lot of home brewers at DefCon. Generally, I did things that no one I had ever met would believe, mostly conversation-based. DefCon changed my worldview in many ways, and I couldn’t think the same as Idahoans after I’d gone there, not that I ever really had.

At one point, I stepped into a fetish party whose hostess dressed in an elegant leather naughty nun outfit that was at least a few hundred bucks worth of classy. Cats o’ nine tails hung from a wall-mounted coat rack. Girls who looked like they stepped out of Ghost in the Shell nightclubs with ethernet twisted in their hair stunned me, along with theatre-quality makeup. Men wore black leather kilts and combat boots, or spook-looking suits and sunglasses. It was like stepping into a chapter of Neuromancer or Snow Crash. It was heaven to me. The people where I grew up were, to be frank, bland. This was a whole new thing. Another room was a deluxe hotel suite where they’d covered every available piece of wall space with transparent plastic to write on, sort of a computer science jam session like they have now everywhere.

These were Vegas suites, baby, the big ones with mirrors and multiple rooms that were, occasionally, bigger than the three-bedroom house I grew up in, or at least they looked and felt that way with 50 people in them. I had stayed in the standard one or two bed holiday inn room before that. I was personally poor, and notable about DefCon was that everyone was extremely generous if you looked like you didn’t have someone to be with or anything to eat or a place to sleep. I went there one year with no money, but a badge, and ate well the whole time just hanging out with people at their events and conversing. The whole thing blew my mind. I don’t know if it’s still like that, but hackers tended to be good-hearted people in my experience. Last, I met a bunch of actual Europeans, having grown up with only my mom’s Polish family from Chicago and a town full of Mormons, and was astonished by how open and reasonable they seemed to be. I decided I was European, at least a little bit, at that point. Or at least I identify that way. That or Native American, they have some things in common.

Anyway, this talk brought back some fond memories of debauchery and excess done for the sake of because why not by people with little respect for the law but, so far as I could tell, enormous respect for one another. Well, sometimes.

I used to wish someone at DefCon would take me under their wing and teach me to hack. But I was no good at math back then, so meh. I’m still not that great at math, but now there are all these cool lessons on the web for anyone who decides to try. Yay progress.



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