Monthly Archives: March 2014

Five Stars for Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (Tor Books, 2008; my references are to the free PDF version from doctorow@craphound.com) succeeds both as a YA techie adventure novel and as an introduction to the debate over security versus the intertwined freedoms of privacy rights and the right to freedom of speech/self-expression. It also succeeds to some extent as an elementary how-to on protecting yourself from post-Patriot Act government surveillance.

I hope I’m wrong about this (please enlighten me if I am), but I doubt that Nebraska teachers are including the book in curriculum for teens under 16 or 17, if at all (and they’re likely to get flack from school boards and parents if they do, both because of the sex scenes and because of the book’s pro-freedom stance). I doubt that the schools will even have it in their libraries – and that’s a shame, because if anyone easily understands the need for privacy and self-expression and the horror of having neither, it’s a teenager. Little Brother ought to be on our library shelves and we ought to make sure our teens are reading and discussing it. It’s not dated and unfortunately is likely to stay timely.

As Doctorow says on page 1 of his introduction:

When I was 17 …..
In the Soviet Union communications tools were being used to bring information and revolution to the farthest flung corners of the largest authoritarian state the Earth had ever seen. But 17 years later, things are very different. The computers I love are being co-opted, used to spy on us, control us, snitch on us. The National Security Agency has illegally wire-tapped the entire USA and gotten away with it. Car rental companies and mass transit and traffic authorities are watching where we go, sending us automated tickets, finking us out to busybodies, cops and bad guys who gain illicit access to their databases. The Transport Security Administration maintains a “no-fly” list of people who’d never been convicted of any crime, but who are nevertheless considered too dangerous to fly. The list’s contents are secret. The rule that makes it enforceable is secret. The criteria for being added to the list are secret. It has four-year-olds on it. And US senators. And decorated veterans, actual war heroes.

It’s always been and probably always will be a constant battle to maintain freedom of speech/expression because the powers that be, whoever/whatever they are, always benefit from making sure that only they, not investigative reporters or whistle-blowers or your average rebellious young people, have it. Freedom of speech and open access to information are dangerous to those who want power and profit only for themselves, because information is powerful and the freedom to express yourself is powerful, especially if you do it well. The same goes for privacy rights – they’re dangerous to the powers that be because the lack of them gives others so much more power to terrorize and completely silence us.

As the narrator, Marcus Yallow (w1n5t0n, later M1k3y), says on p. 22, the right to privacy is not important because you need to conceal shameful acts. “It’s about doing something private. It’s about your life belonging to you. They were taking that from me, piece by piece.” If we can’t have and maintain personal boundaries that others have no right to breach, we’re left feeling naked and powerless and vulnerable to abuse, even when we have done nothing wrong – and we really then ARE powerless and vulnerable to abuse.

One of my favorite passages is the narrator’s discussion of the Paradox of the False Positive (p. 47-48), because it explains so well why collecting data on everything eradicates privacy while it allows threats to citizens from those with access (legal and illegal) to the data but does NOT protect citizens against terrorism. Another favorite passage is Doctorow’s explanation of why he publishes free e-books under a Creative Commons (creativecommons.org) license (see the CC license on this site):

If you’re not making art with the intention of having it copied, you’re not really making art for the twenty-first century. There’s something charming about making work you don’t want to be copied, in the same way that it’s nice to go to a Pioneer Village and see the oldetimey blacksmith shoeing a horse at his traditional forge. But it’s hardly, you know, contemporary. I’m a science fiction writer. It’s my job to write about the future (on a good day) or at least the present. Art that’s not supposed to be copied is from the past.

Little Brother describes both fictional and actual tools for evading keyloggers, censorware, and other invisible monitors on the internet (and was published long enough ago to be very out-of-date, so triple check anything you use, OFTEN, to be sure what you’re using can work):

  • IMParanoid, the fictional secret instant messenger in the book, may exist under some name now but you can’t find it easily with an internet search. What you CAN find is the fascinating hacker blog, http://imparanoidnow.blogspot.com/ .
  • TOR, The Onion Router, an indie internet connection, actually exists. See https://www.torproject.org/‎ .
  • The hint that any program whose name starts with $SYS$ is invisible to the operating system may or may not be true, so renaming your Firefox browser $SYS$Firefox may or may not work. I haven’t been able to figure this out, one way or another. Anyone who knows, please send me a link to the documentation.
  • INDIE OS: Paranoid Linux is the fictional operating system in Little Brother that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government. There have been rumors about it being in development since 2008. Other systems with such goals evidently are under development or may have been developed. See http://www.reddit.com/r/linux/comments/1h2ev6/project_paranoid_linux/
  • Public and private keys to keep messages private and insure messages are from their purported author (Little Brother, p 55-56) are treated extensively in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and described in detail in Wikipedia.
  • Tunneling (piping over DNS) is actual. See Dan Kaminsky, http://www.doxpara.com/bo2004.ppt.

I especially like these References at the end of the book and hope I can get to many of them in the not-distant future:

  • O’Reilly’s MAKE magazine (how-tos for hardware projects at home). See also http://www.instructables.com/tag/type-id/category-technology/ .
  • Ed Felten and Alex J. Halderman, Freedom to Tinker blo, http://www.freedomtotinker.com. About security, wiretapping, anticopying technology, and crypto.
  • Dan Kaminsky, http://www.doxpara.com/bo2004.ppt. About Tunneling (piping over DNS).
  • Dan Gillmor, Center for Citizen Media at Harvard and UC Berkeley, We, the Media, O’Reilly, 2004.
  • Annalee Newitz, “The RFID Hacking Underground,” Wired Magazine, (www.wirednews.com/wired/archive/14.05/rfid.html).
  • Adam Greenfield, Everyware, New Riders Press, 2006. A look at the dangers of a world of arphids.
  • Neal Gershenfeld, Fab Lab at MIT, Fab, Basic Books, 2005.
  • Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things, MIT Press, 2005. How arphids and fabs could be used to force companies to build products that don’t poison the world.
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation, http://www.eff.org. Spends donated money to keep the Internet safe for personal liberty, free speech, due process, and the rest of the Bill of Rights. EFF also helps maintain TOR, The Onion Router, tor.eff.org. See also American Civil Liberties Union (aclu.org), Public Knowledge (publicknowledge.org), FreeCulture (freeculture.org), Creative Commons (creativecommons.org).
  • Slashdot, “News for Nerds, Stuff That Matters” (slashdot.org). Chronicles the fight for cyber liberties.
  • Wikipedia. Covers hacking and counterculture in depth and up-to-date. See both the entries and the “History” and “Discussion” links at the top of every Wikipedia page.
  • Cryptome (cryptome.org). Publishes material from Freedom of Information Act requests and from whistleblowers.
  • The Pirate Party (www.piratpartiet.se), Denmark, the USA and France in July, 2006.
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Purpose Games: Old Dog Learns New Tricks

Thanks for the intro to Purpose Games, Michael. I’m going to add a link to the site on our patron computers and on the children’s tablets we recently bought for the library.

I’d also like links to specific games kids of various ages might like – I think I’ll ask the teens on the new Teen Advisory Committee to take this on as a project, rating games and creating their own (I hope they like some of the reading and math games). This may attract a few more teen members (we’re also using short film making as a core project for them). I know a lot of our teen girls will like the games about horses.

Playing and making games might also be a good learning project for older folks wanting to learn how to use the computer. As long as there isn’t a great need for excitement, they are enjoyable learning tools.

The games are easy to create – if there’s a subject you want others (or yourself) to learn about. I dashed off a quick “where in Val library is this?” set of multiple choice questions, but it could be fun to do a shapes game, using a screenshot of the library layout created in Excel to plan our recent reorganization. And I can see using that sort of game to help our volunteer teen shelvers learn where everything goes. Here is the link to that multiple choice game I created:

http://www.purposegames.com/game/where-in-val-library-is-this-game/info

In addition to some library related games and English grammar games, I tried a number of the geography games – and, yes, I  learned from them, as geography has not been my strong suit. I like the shapes games best – I remembered things better after playing them than after playing the multiple choice games.

All in all, purpose games is a better way to waste time than solitaire. Anything that makes me think and try to remember is good.

Climate, jobs, free press: Techies wanted for a revolution

Monday night I stayed up late to watch Cspan as Senators talked about climate change. It’s about time — well, actually, it’s way past time to start talking and almost too late to fix things, but I keep hoping the powers that be will start behaving responsibly. And that we of little power will find ways to make all of us and them act responsibly together.

Meanwhile, the greediest among us still deny that anything we’ve done has caused the deep ocean warming that’s bringing us rising waters, increasingly strong hurricanes & other storms, unstoppable forest fires, widening droughts, & the extinction of more & more plant & animal species all over the planet. Worse, they deny that anything bad is happening and won’t let us do anything about it. Their denial is crazy and dangerous enough to qualify them for permanent commitment in a mental health facility for the criminally insane.

But they are so intent on preserving fossil fuel income, they can’t see (or won’t admit) how much more profit would come from giving up fossil fuels and going all-out to reverse ocean warming now.

Yes, deniers, there IS money in solar & wind power & retrofitting to ensure conservation. U.S. money & U.S. jobs. And there is profit in clean water and air, and health benefits. And profit in huge savings from avoiding the effects of rising oceans & catastrophic weather events. And the greatest benefit of all: continued human life on this planet.

The deniers can’t — or won’t — see that human life is what’s at risk here. ALL human life. Not just small life, like the salt flat beetles sacrificed for ugly development along N. 27th St in Lincoln, NE. Not just a polluted coral reef here or there. Not just the prairie mammals & birds almost totally extinct today. And it’s not just the QUALITY of life that’s at stake. It’s the FACT of human life.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t worried about our mistreatment of the environment — of all life. I grew up in Florida near the Gulf, so I saw the goose ponds & their wondrous waterfowl & grasses disappear for the sake of strip malls & parking lots.

It was not good.

As a young adult, I moved to Nebraska and every year have seen fewer & fewer birds of all species at all times of the year, because they are dying off by the thousands. No one around me remarks on this. When I do, they eye me suspiciously.

No one seems to remember that only 16 years ago, small birds regularly rested everywhere along the rural power lines in long double and triple rows, and birds of all sizes regularly flew overhead in town and over farmland, while hawks rode the thermals in groups of 4 here, 6 there, 5 more a ways off, and the swallows flew in thick clouds in summer twilight. Now you have to stand and watch and wait to spot the lone bird or, if lucky, two or three.

It is not good.

Humans have not inhabited earth forever, and our appearance has not been a blessing to the life that came before us and makes it possible for us to continue. For a while we have at times been a blessing to each other, but we too often take the easy way, for immediate comfort with no thought about consequences. As the rabbis say, we rush to do evil. It is our undoing as individuals. As peoples. Soon, perhaps, as a species.

After all, our fisheries are dying. The oceans are acidifying. And most of our oxygen comes from ocean plant life, which cannot survive continued acidification.

Our Nebraska Governor & legislators want us to keep rushing headlong toward poisoned water & land. They deny the danger of pushing poisonous tar sands sludge by the thousands of gallons through pipes over the biggest, most important aquifer in the plains States. Without that good, clean water, farmers & ranchers in these States cannot supply food to the rest of the country or overseas. All human & animal life here depends on it. No jobs & no profit are worth risking it.

All pipelines leak, sooner or later. It is not good.

We do NOT have to choose between the KXL pipeline risk and the risks of carrying tar sands poisons by rail. Sane people would not have chosen to create acres of poisonous ponds to hold the by-products of taking it from the ground. Only insane greed chooses to create ponds so poisonous we must frighten off the waterfowl to keep them from landing in certain death. Sane people will choose to leave tar sands oil in the ground.

Big oil & gas interests, including state and national legislators, also want us to ignore the insanity of fracturing the earth for the short-term profits of natural gas. We are to ignore the dangers of increasing earthquakes in Oklahoma & Texas — under & around pipelines already carrying oil & often leaking & spilling onto our yards and into our rivers & streams. We are not to ask about the billions of gallons of water they use and pollute to do the fracking. We are not to ask about the poisons they pump in with the water. Or the methane they release into the air. Or the ground water they pollute.

We are to shut up about such things. They are spending millions to shut us up and drown us out with denials and lies.

It is not good.

Shutting up is NOT the answer.

I am not eager to chain myself to a bulldozer or the White House fence in protest, but I am tired of writing letter after letter, and signing petition after petition, and getting excuses for willful ignorance and greed and downright evil from my Senators & Congressmen & Governor & state legislators & corporate officers. Don’t these people have children & grandchildren & greatgrandchildren? Do they actually think their descendents will exist if we don’t stop our rush toward extinction?

But I also will not shut up. Tiredness is no excuse. Nor age, and, yes, I am getting old and I am not a person of means or able to travel far from my community. But I will not shut up.

Divine intervention is not going to save us. Benign intervention from outer space is not going to save us. Hope is not going to save us. Only WE can save us and we have to ACT and make everyone else ACT to save us. Including the greedy evil SOBs spending megamillions to keep us from saving us.

I’ll keep calling & writing & campaigning & voting & may soon be chaining myself to bullfozers & fences to make change happen. But I am not enough by myself or even as a member or supporter of one or more of the many envronmental organizations out there, like 350.org, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, NRDC, EDF, WWF — it’s a long list. We need a really big national movement with thousands of us in the streets everywhere, so that we can keep ALL our legislators up all night, not just talking but legislating and forcing corrective actions NOW.

We need to be able to act together, as individuals & as organizations. And we need better internet tools (or better ways to use them) to make this happen — not new organizations but an easy way to connect existing ones, so that even those of us without means, who cannot travel from our communities, can make our voices heard as one huge LOUD voice.

I hope some of you Techies who read this will help create such tools — I know you’re out there with the know-how to make it happen or the means to help.

For example:

What if we had a website that could track and MAP things in real time by crowd-sourcing — a website we could use to stay informed & up-to-date as advocates, and to recruit more advocates & to persuade legislators & pressure corporations? A website that existing environmental groups could use to coordinate with each other and extend their reach? To plan & coordinate actions of all sorts?

Ushahadi.com open source software could help make it happen — if folks with the know-how are willing to make it work.

Such a website could keep us informed by mapping such things as:

  • Existing & proposed pipelines
  • Natural gas wells, fracking sites, polluted wells (& known pollutants & effects)
  • Polluted land, creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes
  • Leaks & spills (crowd-sourcing could pinpoint new problems as they arise & help keep info up-to-date)
  • Pollution details such as start date, company responsible, remedial efforts & progress & costs
  • Reactions from responsible gas or oil or pipeline or transport companies — & their contact info
  • Reactions from/environmental positions of local/state/national representatives — & their contact info
  • Advocacy actions & events, from mass efforts at long-distance lobbying to coordinated marches on state houses and occupations of corporate offices.

Every new posting could automatically go out to Facebook & Twitter & subscribing blogs & individuals & wherever else becomes possible.

So this is a shout-out to Techies who care: The world needs you to organize a revolution. Please help.