I’m a fan of the “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language” known as xkcd, and one of the recurring “hero” characters in it is Cory Doctorow, author and founder of former magazine and current blog Boing Boing. I was perusing some of the older xkcd comics, most of which I’d already seen, and came across one of the references to Doctorow and decided to wikipedia him. Turns out he’s a pretty interesting person, and a well-read and respected fiction author. He’s really into comics and science fiction, as well as personal privacy, intellectual property right laws, and a host of other “nerdy” subjects, many of which interest me as well. I then read about his latest novel, Little Brother, and some of the critical acclaim it had received. It piqued my interest, so I looked into it more. Turns out that Doctorow publishes all his books under the Creative Commons license, which is essentially a more flexible alternative to Copyrighting your work. Creative Commons has been a great success online, along with GNU free documentation and other “share-friendly” licensing methods, and has many sites dedicated to works published under its “some rights reserved” protections. The beauty of Creative Commons is that it preserves the content creator’s rights to profit from and retain ownership of their work (be it musical, literary, photographic, etc.) while recognizing that allowing the public to freely keep, share, and (optionally) modify artistic work can be a tremendous boon to their success. To make a long story short, by being published under CC, Doctorow’s books like Little Brother are freely available, and he has a wide variety of text and ebook formats available for free, anonymous download on the book’s website. If you’d like to know more about why an artist would choose to freely give away their works, read Doctorow’s explanation at the beginning of the book.
After downloading the PDF version of the book, I started reading. I read more than half of it yesterday afternoon, and finished it this morning. It was excellent. The book takes place in the near future and describes an America that has continued down the path of “sacrificing privacy for security,” only to experience another terrorist attack that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seizes as an opportunity to increase their surveillance of American citizens tenfold. The book has a definite anti-establishment, hippie vibe, but it’s not preachy. With the exception of the impersonal, one-dimensional DHS operatives (the villains), Doctorow accurately presents the opinions of those in opposition to his message, and factually responds with examples from history and the Constitution. The main characters are young, but relatable and well-intentioned kids who love their families and are generally good role models. Doctorow doesn’t buy into religion, and this occasionally comes through in the book (along with a bit of mature language/situations), but as a Christian I thought he did a good job keeping it restrained.
In addition to the gripping story about a modern kid’s fight against a Constitution-violating federal agency and how it affects his life, the book is also remarkable for its effortless incorporation of technical education in a way that should be palatable to someone without a lot of prior knowledge. A big theme in the book is a healthy respect and fascination with technology, and how it can both be used to preserve and protect our liberties, as well as violate them. Akin to how Tom Clancy will ocassionally give a lengthy explanation of something like an intricate bomb-making process (nothing classified, of course) to add interest and depth to his books, Doctorow educates his readers on how modern cryptography is used to secure electronic communications, from prime number-based math to the concept of public/private keys and digital signatures. I’ve taken a class on the subject, and found his explanations not only accurate, but written in a way that any moderately technical or math-minded person could understand. Between his explanations of various security technologies and his patriotic warning about what could happen if Americans don’t stand up for their Constitutional rights, Little Brother entertains and educates with remarkable success.
If you ever wondered why so many young technophiles (myself included) donated to Ron Paul’s campaign, oppose the Patriot Act, and fear for our country as, in the name of “security,” it sacrifices the principles of freedom and justice that made it great, read this book. If you think you’d enjoy a well-written yarn about underdogs fighting the good fight against oppression, while learning some interesting tidbits about cryptography and the Constitution along the way, read this book. If you’re willing to let your preconcieved notions about hippies, demonstrators, hackers, geeks, government, the press, etc. be challenged, read this book. And if you’d like to support a skilled author in his quest to spread the word about alternative licensing (or simply don’t like to read books on a screen), buy this book. I plan to.
(As someone with a degree in Computer Science, I particularly loved the end of Chapter 7. It explains one of the things I love about my field.)
“If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do. It’s like designing a machine — any machine, like a car, like a faucet, like a gas-hinge for a door — using math and instructions. It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.
A computer is the most complicated machine you’ll ever use. It’s made of billions of micro-miniaturized transistors that can be configured to run any program you can imagine. But when you sit down at the keyboard and write a line of code, those transistors do what you tell them to.
Most of us will never build a car. Pretty much none of us will ever create an aviation system. Design a building. Lay out a city.
Those are complicated machines, those things, and they’re off-limits to the likes of you and me. But a computer is like, ten times more complicated, and it will dance to any tune you play. You can learn to write simple code in an afternoon. Start with a language like Python, which was written to give non-programmers an easier way to make the machine dance to their tune. Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work — if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code.”