Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother is often categorized as science fiction, like 1984, the book that inspired it, but I think that’s wrong.  Neither are science fiction.  Both books are political philosophy, and even though both books are set slightly in the future, they are about today’s politics.  Little Brother is an exciting story, well told, vividly detailed, full of technological ideas, excellently plotted, with engaging characterization of a Wi-Fi generation – a real page turner.  I highly recommend reading Little Brother.  But it’s also as serious as a terrorist attack.


Cory Doctorow campaigns hard for his beliefs, standing on Little Brother like a soapbox.  I’m sorry Little Brother didn’t get more widespread public attention, because it deserves it, but I’m guessing that outside of the ghetto of science fiction and the geek world of Slashdot, it’s was pretty much ignored.  This is unfortunate, because the ideas it brings up for debate need universal attention.

Now, that’s not to say I completely agree with Doctorow.  I have some fundamental differences in philosophy.  Marcus Yallow, the seventeen year old hero of this novel, and his three friends have a nightmare encounter with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and from then on the story diverges philosophically with my thinking.  Doctorow believes in fighting fire with fire, and Marcus and his friends use high tech to battle the high tech of the DHS.

If we lived in Iran I would agree with that, but we don’t.  We live in an open society, and if we want to keep it free and open, we need to fight for civil liberties on a battlefield where everyone can watch.  Doctorow invents a special distribution of Linux called Paranoid Linux which allows for an underground youth rebellion to assemble in privacy.  And he compares this new revolution to the radical yippies of the 1960s. 

But there’s a huge difference.  Back then the rallying cry was “The Whole World is Watching.”  The way to fight big brother oppression is to make everything public.  Doctorow has his revolutionaries encrypt everything.  That’s bad.

I want to live in a society where I can write anything I want in this blog.  I don’t want to live in a society where I must encrypt my thoughts and secretly share them with my friends with public and private keys.

More than that I want the government to use all the technology in its power to find the enemies of society, but I also want our government to prosecute terrorists in the full light of day, and not hide them in secret prisons around the world.  None of this bullshit about civil rights being different in war times.

Doctorow is right, innocent people do suffer when fighting terrorism, but turning them into underground freedom fighters isn’t the answer.  The book eventually does come to my way of thinking and investigative reporting saves the day.  But there are many smaller issues that need to be discussed by a wider audience.

For example, should there be video cameras in classrooms, and do our children need 24×7 surveillance.  I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s where I ran wild and unobserved.  I loved that freedom and I’d hate to think the kids today don’t have it.  But we live in a much different world. 

Education is failing many children.  The failure of education is creating a widening class divide. Education is the tax straw that’s breaking many a local and state financial back.  There is a tremendous sense of failure regarding education.  If we applied the “Whole World is Watching” to the K-12 landscape, where anyone could tune into any classroom and see what’s going on for themselves, would that revolutionize the problem?  Would people really claim urban schools get equal quality education as suburban schools? 

Doctorow had a classroom scene which caused a teacher to be fired.  If it had been on video would that have happened?  Would kids act up or tune out if they knew their parents were watching?  I’d vote for more cameras in the school, but also want to find ways to give kids more privacy from adults after school.  We live in the era of watching video cameras, and we’ve yet to explore the impact of that philosophically.

We also live in a world of too many secrets.  I don’t want or need Paranoid Linux.  If parents could observe their darling young ones in their classes would it help education in our nation?  If parents had to spend one day a month going to school with their children, would our educational system get the improvements it needed?  That would mean on average there would always be one parent observer in every classroom every day.

In Little Brother the DHS conduct very secret processing of suspects.  Would not cameras or citizen observers have solved the central problems of this story?

Doctorow tries to make it clear that he thinks the computer techniques the DHS and other police systems use to sift out the bad guys are silly because they produce too many false positives, and that might be true, but we’re fighting a war on individuals, not nations, and we have to use such statistical techniques.  When a few people can kill thousands, we have to find new criminal detection tools. 

Little Brother is a novel about privacy, civil liberty and freedom during an era when people are willing to sacrifice all of those rights for more security.  I’m surprised that rabid conservatives haven’t made a call to ban Little Brother because the Department of Homeland Security is the villain of the story.  But they haven’t because we live in America, not North Korea.

While reading Little Brother, I often felt on the side of the bad guys (the government), but then, in this story the rallying cry of the young is, “Don’t trust anyone over 25” and I’m 58.  It also makes me wonder how I would react if I could meet my younger self who used to believe “don’t trust anyone over thirty.” 

Little Brother does more to capture the feeling of the radical sixties than any book I’ve ever read set in the sixties.  But I’m not sure if Doctorow isn’t idolizing the wrong people.  Abbie Hoffman was an asshole.  The yippies were a joke.

It’s very hard to be anti-government and not sound anti-American, but I think this book pulls it off.  Everyone wants to be free and secure, but some people are willing to give up a lot of freedoms to feel more secure.  What Doctorow illustrates is sometimes that’s an illusion, but what he doesn’t explore is the real value of security.  Freedom and security are entwined like Yin and Yang.

A society of billions is unbelievably complex and there are no easy answers.  Most of us want to live our lives in peace and pursue happiness.  There are a few, and by population standards, an extremely tiny portion, who want to hurt other people, or bring down society.  It would be great if we could put all of these people on an island and let them have the freedom to hurt each other, but that’s not possible.  We have to find these few and neutralize them.  That will require police techniques that might hurt or inconvenience the normal citizen.  I don’t see any way out of that, but Doctorow brings up the topic for debate.

JWH – 7/17/10

The Conservatives Are Confusing Me

Usually it’s wise not to argue politics or religion, but things are getting weird, and I’m having trouble keeping score on which team is pursuing which ideals.  The Republicans claim to be pro God, and swear the Democrats are godless, and at first glance this seems so because conservatives go to church.  But yesterday I saw a car driving in stop and go traffic with a huge sign that totally confused me.  It said to the best of my recollection:

The government is not God,

Obama is not Christ,

Democrats are Satan,

America is going to Hell 

What’s with the conservatives and their Biblical slogans? 

Since I have a tendency to rewrite everything to be more logical, I thought about offering to rewrite their slogan, which is absurd too, since I’m a godless liberal.

How could they improve their metaphors.  What if we replaced the first line with “The government is not Moses.”  Think about it, conservatives demand fewer laws and Moses only provided ten. 

But wait, if you’re read The Old Testament, you’ll know it’s not about spiritual development but God relentless nagging the chosen people to build a great nation.  The book is bursting its binding with laws and more laws.  If conservatives are worried about federal government making too many laws they ought to read the Old Testament, God was far more demanding.  The New Testament is more libertarian, it gets down to just one law, the Golden Rule.

Maybe these guys are mad because the federal government is making as many laws as God, butting into God’s territory?  Could the original line really be far more subtle than I think.  So are these guys really saying the federal government should not be like God, and make fewer laws?

Obama is not Christ?  Ummm?  Jesus was big on healing people and Obama is big on healthcare reform.  I do see the connection they are making, but what are they protesting?  Wouldn’t Jesus want universal healthcare?  Wasn’t healing his profession?   Are they wanting a President that doesn’t act like Christ?  Wouldn’t that be the anti-Christ?

Dealing with negative implications are hard.  Luckily, the next line is straight forward, Democrats are Satan.  Satan is the bad guy, so obviously they mean the Democrats are the bad guys.  But the Democrats are for healing people, helping the downtrodden, aiding the poor, just like Jesus taught.  And, the democrats love the meek.  Jesus also wanted to see the good in criminals and prostitutes, which sounds more liberal than conservative to me.  So why is the party trying to do what Jesus taught called Satanic?  I’m confused again.

And why is America going to hell?  The satanic democratic party wants healthcare for all, to clean up the environment, educate children and make them wise, become less gluttonous with natural resources, share the wealth, and so on.  And most of all, they want to end global warming!  Which sounds like an anti-hell agenda to me.  The democrats seem to be seeking the same goals preached in the New Testament.  Well, I’m just an ignorant heathen, who does not understand the subtle wisdom of the righteous.

I know the guys in the car are pro Republicans, and they want to tie their cause to Christianity.  But the Republicans are pro money, pro war, pro guns, pro greed, pro waste, pro destroy the Earth, hell bent to make all animals extinct, and they absolutely, positively, hate the meek.  This really doesn’t compute.  It doesn’t seem to be what I learned in Sunday School before I dropped out to become a heretic.  Did they change lessons plans after I left?

Some conservatives see a new Jesus that will return to kill off the unbelieving like a rampaging Rambo holding two machine guns.  But wouldn’t that be the anti-Christ they keep talking about?

I am reminded of an old short story by Robert Sheckley about Armageddon.  The world is ending, and two great armies are fighting the war of Armageddon, but it’s all fought with machines and robots, and when God opens the sky, its the robots that rise up to heaven.  Wouldn’t it be strange if the rapture arrives and God takes up all the Democrats and leaves all the Republicans?   

JWH – 4/22/10

He’s No Hitler

I don’t know why some Tea Party protestors want to compare President Obama to Hitler. I never liked it when liberals compared President Bush to Hitler either.  Why do angry, political powerless, protestors feel they are using their trump card when linking their enemies to Hitler?  The protest placards are far more damning to their makers than those they target.  Few leaders in history can be compared to Hitler.  His evil qualities are so extreme that its simple-minded to use Hitler as any kind of measuring stick to gauge the average politician.  It’s like comparing firecrackers to H-bombs.

If the Tea Party people want to make comparisons they should compare Obama to a previous President they think pursued the same goals they hate.  I would imagine that would be Lyndon Johnson, or even FDR.  Strangely, the reason why I didn’t like President Bush was because his Iraq War was a whole lot like LBJ’s Vietnam War.  Our political landscape needs no comparison to Germany, Russia or China, we’ve been fighting our own unique issues since George Washington became President.  What’s sad is the Tea Party people scream so much about 1776 but they can’t see how we got from then to now and why we can’t go backwards.

The political right’s seeing red over Obama actually has little to with the man, but is just a continuation of a long term Hatfield and McCoy like feud.  Obama is just the liberal figurehead that sits in the Oval Office at the moment.  The righteous indignation of the conservatives always thinks liberal leaders, especially strong ones, are as evil as Hitler or Stalin.  Conversely, extreme liberals compare strong conservatives to Hitler when they are in office.  We need to analyze why?  (And who was the ultimate evil bad guy before WWII used in insults?)

Shouting the name Hitler is about as creative as people who use both phrases: “that’s some good shit” and “that’s some bad shit” in their day-to-day lives.  Comparing people to Hitler is only meaningful is you’re talking about Stalin, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Idi Amin and to a lesser degree, Saddam Hussein.

The Tea Party movement is really just sore losers crying over spilt milk.  Sarah Palin has nothing constructive to say politically.  What Obama has done while he is in office is not significantly different from what a conservative President would have done except for the healthcare bill, and if Republicans won the White House every term even they would have had to passed healthcare reform sooner or later, and it might not have been that much different from what the Democrats created.  The healthcare bill had no public option and is built around private insurance, an idea originating with Republicans.  Changing times force political changes, not ideology.

The momentum of economic reality rolls on no matter which party is in the White House.  So far we’ve been lucky and had no real Hitlers.  If Obama was like Hitler, Fox News would be shut down, and all their commentators dead.  Also, if any of our Presidents had really been like Hitler, the U.S.A. would have collapsed.  Our diversity could not support such extremism.

It’s much too early to tell how good or bad a President Obama will be.  Anyone blaming Obama for our present situation really needs to blame hordes of politicians, from both parties, going back decades.

What we have to worry about is the educational level of people comparing any of our Presidents to Hitler.  In fact, I think we should discount any political protestor or commentator who can’t reference a realistic comparison to past American political leaders and policies, and make reasonable links to previous problems and solutions.   People who use the name Hitler in protest are just people who have forgotten history, or never really knew it in the first place.

Evoking the name of Hitler is a kind of terrorist tactic, or Chicken Little exclaiming that the sky is falling.  It depresses me.  I’ve seen TV coverage where Tea Party people are outrage at the media coverage they get, and are even becoming critical of their own who go to extremes.  They don’t like being call racists or crackpots, and who can blame them, but it’s the extreme protest signs and rhetoric that get them on the news.  I’d take their protests more seriously as a third party if they didn’t make those extreme attacks on President Obama. 

The policies of any President are always open to criticism, but comparing any President to Hitler or Stalin is low IQ.  I’ve always hated Michael Moore political tactics too.  People have really sunk to a low point if they use Sacha Cohen’s tactics to attack one another.  It’s strange when conservatives follow in the footsteps of Abbie Hoffman, but then I’m sure there have always been mean spirited, underhanded, attackers protesting the power holders in Washington.

I guess I’m just overly sensitive to hot blooded, emotionally charged people.  I found it amusing the other day on the news when a roving reporter asked a Tea Party protestor about his sign comparing Obama to Hitler.  The guy said quietly that he meant no disrespect.  I wondered if he was actually embarrassed.  I bet he’d wished he had created a more creative slogan, equal to “Don’t tread on me” or “No taxation without representation.”  I guess the Tea Party has yet to find their Tom Paine or Ben Franklin.  It’s a shame the best they can do is a brunette Ann Coulter.  

JWH – 4/17/10

An Alternate History of The Tea Party

Let’s imagine The Tea Party movement starting much earlier so they were firmly in power by 2008 and got to make the decisions that President Bush and Obama made.  Let’s imagine they released the Kraken of absolute free economic survival of the fittest capitalism.  What would our world be like today in 2010?

Picture all those top banks, AIG, GM and Chrysler going down the tubes.  Then imagine all their business partners going under, and the domino effect that would have.  What would Wall Street and our 401k accounts look like today?  And with all those people out of work would the Tea Party even offer a stimulus package?  Let’s assume not.  Let’s assume they really want absolute free markets and a small government like they claim.  What would the unemployment figure be today?  No one really knows.  But I do believe all the states would be much worse off today, and so would their retirement systems for state employees.

Our whole way of life is built on a giant Ponzi scheme of economic activity.  If the economy slows everyone suffers.  The loan crisis of 2008 was a hydrogen bomb hitting Wall Street, and what the Tea Party philosophy appears to say is “Absolutely no disaster relief.”

As much as free market capitalists would like to believe, there is no such thing as a free market.  All the governments of the world back their citizens and corporations to compete in various ways.  The Federal Government has always been a stimulus package for our economy.  To have true free markets we’d have to have no government involvement.  Government would only be for roads, militia, police, and all those other shared services, but not for helping America to compete in the world markets, or to help corporations and individuals survive within the United States.

If we followed the Tea Party philosophy we’d have to stop subsidizing industries like farming and oil.  Big government means lots of jobs.  Big government means helping corporations get bigger which means even more jobs.  Social services means supporting people who would otherwise be looking for jobs.  Applying the Tea Party philosophy means destroying tens of millions of jobs.

If the Tea Party had gotten their way in 2008 I believe we’d have devastating unemployment today, with all the retirement systems, including federal, state, corporate, personal savings, etc. would have been wiped out, and we’d have even a larger portion of the population without medical insurance.  The economic Kraken would have eaten us up and shitted us out.  But I can’t prove that, but I find it hard to believe otherwise.

What the Tea Party philosophy wants to believe  is absolute Darwinian survival of the fittest.  And theoretically that might sound good.  During our great pioneering days, the weak died, and the strong got stronger.  But then we invented democracy and organized into a cooperative civilization.  This allow millions to get stronger, grow and thrive.

The history of America is really the history of cooperative effort.  Do we really want to go back to era of pioneering when only the strongest individuals survived?  Sure, the strongest level of cooperation then was the family structure.  I really admire the pioneering spirit of those days, but its only suited for an extremely low population density.

I don’t think the Tea Party people really want to shrink the government that small.  I expect most of them are really just nostalgic for the 1950s sized government.  But try and imagine a world without Medicare and Medicaid?  My mother’s last twenty years cost a lot of money in terms of medical care that neither she nor me and my sister could have afforded.  And I imagine that’s true of most people in the U.S.  And that governmental supported health care for the elderly and poor created millions of jobs.

I just don’t see how we can go backwards without putting millions out of work.  What the Tea Party philosophy wants would so thoroughly reshape our society.  Some would get much richer, but most would get much poorer.

All the political conflict in our country comes down to one analogy:  There is a knob that adjusts the economy.  Turn it one way and it strengthens the individual, turn it the other way, it strengthens the whole.  Many Tea Party people believe they would be strengthened by turning the knob to the right.  Want to know if that’s true for you?  If you are already rich then you have what it takes and that turn of the knob will help you.  If you aren’t rich, more than likely you’ll be in the whole that gets poorer.  The strong are already strong.  Very few people sit on the borderline and would be freed to find new wealth.

Sure it would be nice to pay less tax.  If we paid 10% or 25% less would our individual lives be that much better?  I would think it would put millions our of work, so for the whole it would bring misery.  Would some of our problems be solved if we all paid a little more?  I don’t know.  I think we should be taxed less in good times, and more in bad, simply to share the good and the bad more fairly.

The Tea Party protestors seem so angry at the government, believing less government would improve our lives.  If we had better banking regulators and economists, couldn’t we have avoided some of these economic tragedies?  The economy seems to be getting slowly better, and isn’t that due to government intrusion?  I am not very political, but I don’t see the size of the government as a problem.  When I hear about tainted food, I want more food inspectors.  When I hear about terrorists I want more security guards.  When I hear that China and India want to go to the Moon, I want NASA to go back. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think everything runs smoothly, or every tax dollar is spent wisely.  If bean counters can find ways to cut the fat, or watchdogs find ways to get rid of graft and corruption, or economists can come up with ways to do things cheaper, I’m all for it.  I just don’t see the point of making the government smaller if we have to give up services that the majority wants.

Wasn’t the original Tea Party a protest against taxation without representation?  We get lots of opportunity to vote and have our voices heard.  And if the Tea Party people had something specific they wanted, their job is to get the majority to agree.  They are being heard, but their protests are more about anger than legislation.  Being against health care reform is just swimming against the tide when many nations much poorer than us already have it.  That’s just the way the world is going.  We can’t go backwards, especially if we want the U.S. to stay the world leader 

And don’t get me wrong, there is lots to protest about.  The stimulus money could have been better managed.  People losing their homes should have gotten more help.  People without jobs should be getting help faster.  I think our government is constantly evolving and improving, and sure it has tremendous problems, but over time those will be fixed and new ones will show up.  We’ll always have problems and we’ll never reach perfection.

Sarah Palin, The Tea Party, Fox News, and all the politics of anger scares me.  I want a stable law and order society and these people are advocating revolution.  I feel now how my parents felt in the 1960s.  I’m sure many people are tired of liberal progress, but if they studied history, they would see even as far back as pre-history the evolution of liberal thought.  The evolution of liberal ideas have been progressing for a very long time.  It’s so ironic that conservatives worship the liberal heroes of the past.

Conservatives are just liberals who want to get off the progress train.  No matter how right wing some conservatives are, many of their cherished beliefs were once radical.  I am reminded of the ending to the movie Things to Come, where two scientists are watching the first flight to the Moon:

An observatory at a high point above Everytown. A telescopic mirror of the night sky showing the cylinder as a very small speck against a starry background. Cabal and Passworthy stand before this mirror.

CABAL: “There! There they go! That faint gleam of light.”


PASSWORTHY: “I feel–what we have done is–monstrous.”

CABAL: “What they have done is magnificent.”

PASSWORTHY: “Will they return?”

CABAL: “Yes. And go again. And again–until the landing can be made and the moon is conquered. This is only a beginning.”

PASSWORTHY: “And if they don’t return–my son, and your daughter? What of that, Cabal?”

CABAL (with a catch in his voice but resolute): “Then presently–others will go.”

PASSWORTHY: “My God! Is there never to be an age of happiness? Is there never to be rest?”

CABAL: “Rest enough for the individual man. Too much of it and too soon, and we call it death. But for MAN no rest and no ending. He must go on–conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time–still he will be beginning.”

PASSWORTHY: “But we are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile–so weak.”

CABAL: “Little animals, eh?”

PASSWORTHY: “Little animals.”

CABAL: “If we are no more than animals–we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more–than all the other animals do–or have done.” (He points out at the stars.) “It is that–or this? All the universe–or nothingness…. Which shall it be, Passworthy?”

The two men fade out against the starry background until only the stars remain.

The musical finale becomes dominant.

CABAL’S voice is heard repeating through the music: “Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”

The role of the conservative is not to stop progress, but to make progress stable and orderly.  Wild eyed liberals need conservative reason.  There is no communication anymore between the two polarized camps, so we’ve stopped working together.  We both just fear each other’s ideas.  Now that the liberals have gotten healthcare reform maybe we should focus on fiscal conservation and let the other side have some wins too.  Our progress seems to have scared the conservatives into becoming radicals, where they are even willing to abandon their old love of law and order.

JWH – 4/6/10

The Human Family Tree – National Geographic

The Human Family Tree is a 2-hour documentary that explains why race is an optical illusion.  The show will be repeated 09/06/09 at 1pm, but is also available on Netflix now.  Because of the wonders of DNA and genetic markers, scientists are able to trace the migrations of human populations back to their origins in Africa.  Be sure and watch the show until the end, where the filmmakers do a wonderful trick with their participants.  At the beginning of the show, project director Spencer Wells visits a street fair in Queens, New York and his team takes cheek swaps from crowds of people, all claiming to be immigrants from all over the world.  Many people volunteer and their stories get told during the documentary.  Most of these people expect the DNA to confirm their family genealogy that they cherish and has been handed down to them by word of mouth and photos.

At the end of the show the filmmakers meet outdoors in a giant field and have all the volunteers stand in groups based on the prominent markers in their DNA.  The groups are roughly arranged like a map of the world.  Many of the people whose stories were featured on the show are surprised by what their biology reveals, like one black man grouped with the Europeans and one Puerto Rican woman grouped with Native Americans.

The show is full of wonderful computer animation, beautiful high-definition filmed sequences from all over the world and staged scenes that act out what life was like tens of thousand of years ago.  Science really has learned vast libraries of statistical knowledge from combining anthropology and DNA research.  What it shows is racial characteristics are insignificant compared to all the rest of our traits.  Essentially humans are almost identical, far more so than other animal species.  We may look very different, but our DNA tells us otherwise.  In fact, one of the more interesting tidbits to come out of the show is that Africa is the most genetically diverse continent because it’s population is the oldest.

Watching this documentary makes an excellent companion to the book I am listening to, The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, which explores the rise of religion across the globe starting with hunting and gathering societies.  Wright measures the development of religion by how well it deals with ethnic diversity.  Even though humans are all alike, we’ve always been very xenophobic, and the presentation of The Human Family Tree would be in accordance to the highest spiritual development in religious philosophy as explored by Wright. 

It would be fascinating to chronicle the religious history against the histories of the various migrating populations that the DNA markers reveal.  Would it be possible to follow the paths of memes like paths of genetic material in our blood?  The majority of the world’s worshipers in God build their beliefs on the political and social conflicts of one tiny group of people, living in one tiny part of the world, concerning events that happened two and three thousand years ago, while ignoring all the religious practices of vast hordes of people that migrated all over the globe.  But then most of those religions were tied to local ethnocentric and highly xenophobic tribes.  We are becoming global on so many levels.

The Human Family Tree makes social, philosophical and political statements through it’s work with exploring the science of DNA, with implications that are far greater than teaching us about human migration patterns.  As graphically illustrated in the show, everyone has two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, and if you follow the math it doesn’t take that many generations until you are related to nearly everyone on Earth.

Most people don’t know much about their ancestors beyond their grandparents or maybe one of their great grandparents, so they imagine their heritage coming from one individual.  But if you go back a few hundred years and had to picture yourself the product of 128 or 256 individuals, what can you claim to be?  It’s hard enough to spot traits you get from two parents, so why imagine yourself to be the product of any race, culture, country, or other identity?  All we can be is the human we are at the moment and any cultural heritage is just silly pretending.

JWH – 9/4/9

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