Be Your Own Pet are a bunch of young kids from Nashville. Get Awkward is their second album. According to the liner notes, two of them were born in 1988 and one of them in 1990. 1990! They play three-chord punk music which focuses primarily on having fun and partying. I like to think that Black Flag’s “TV Party” might be an influence, but really they sound more like The Muffs than anyone else. Jemima Pearl is one of those surprisingly cute punk singers who explode in a gruff gravelly voice (although never TOO rough or gravely) which makes all the proceedings quite fun.
The songs are short (only 2 songs are over 3 minutes), fast, and generally fun. Song titles like “Food Fight,” “Zombie Graveyard Party!” “Bitches Leave” and “Bummer Time” should give you some sense of what the songs are about. I’m led to believe their first album was a bit more aggressive (enough to get Thurston Moore to sign them to his Ecstatic Peace record label). But this one keeps pretty well to the three chords (and occasional guitar riff) and fun shouting and singing.
It seems like every few years there’s a new young punk band who takes up the mantle of punk rock and BYOP were the most recent (although their web site says the just broke up). And it’s cool for young kids to have a new young band to look up to. Much like the theme of the book below, if you’re over 25 you ‘ll probably just think that this band is ripping off [insert your favorite brash young punk band here] but really who wants to listen to 40 year olds singing about parties and whatnot. So, if you’re looking for a new young band, then, check them out. There’s not too much new about them, but then, that’s not the point, is it.
And according to Wikipedia, three tracks were removed because they were deemed too violent (!). Maybe the album is well suited to this book after all.
[READ: September 16, 2008] Little Brother
I have to get this out of the way: READ THIS BOOK! It is fantastic and it will motivate you like nothing I’ve read. READ IT READ IT READ IT.
Okay, I feel a little better.
I read an interview with Cory Doctorow in American Libraries, the magazine of the American Library Association. It was a short interview about this book, and he said such great things in a few paragraphs, that I immediately went to work and checked out the book. And, wow, what a fantastic book.
This may be the kiss of death for any young reader, but Little Brother is an important book. And everyone should read it. And yes, I know it is fiction, but fiction can be a very powerful tool for waking people up to injustice. Upton SInclair’s The Jungle was instrumental in the creation of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which established the Food and Drug Administration. Not bad for a work of fiction, eh?
It’s a different world now, and one book probably can’t have as much of an impact as it did then, but we can still hope, right. Oh, and Cory Doctorow is a pretty cool thinker as well. I’ll give more details later, but for now, let’s get to the book.
Little Brother is about Marcus, a 17 year old high school student who spends much of his free time with technology (he goes by the name W1n5t0n): he builds his own laptops, he creates small camera detectors out of toilet paper rolls, and he thinks of ways to confuse the motion sensing gait-detector at his school. Yes, that’s right, there are computers all over his school. They can’t look at your face (that would be unconstitutional) but they can monitor the way you walk, because, like fingerprints, everyone has a unique walk, and its a way to see who is not where he is supposed to be. Although as Marcus points out, walks may be unique, but they are also VERY similar, and very easy to mask. And we’ll learn a bit more about false positives very shortly.
Marcus is a geek, he used to play D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) and LARPs (Live Action Role Playing Games–in which you dress up as fantasy characters and act out scenarios…ah, if only they’d had that when I was a young D&D player). But since he became an older teen he has been heavily involved in ARGing, (Alternate Reality Gaming). On a day that he and his four friends skip school to begin the latest round of the coolest ARG around: Harajuku Fun Madness, there is a terrorist strike in San Francisco. In the commotion, Marcus’ friend Daryl is injured. While trying to flag down help, the four friends are taken by the Department of Homeland Security. Since the kids are full of techie gadgets they are immediately under suspicion–even though they are all American citizens.
They are taken on a boat to a location somewhere off of San Francisco (what is eventually nicknamed Gitmo-by-the-Bay), where they are held for several days and interrogated. In all this time, their parents don’t know if they are even alive or dead–DHS does not notify them. After a few days, the DHS releases three of them–Daryl is left behind in an unknown limboland. They inform Marcus that if he tells anyone about what happened, they will recapture him and that will be the end of him.
What happens next is an inspirational story of underground subterfuge. Using the inspiration of sixties protests and marches for freedom, Marcus tries to rally the youth of San Francisco to fight the DHS. Marcus loves his country, he loves the freedoms that we have, and he hates to see them not only stripped away, but practically given away by a frightened populace.
Freedom isn’t Free [a popular bumper sticker reads]
So why do we keep giving ours away? [is my rejoinder]
The DHS has begun tracking people through their RFIDs. RFIDs (Radio Frequency Identification) are real and they are in everything. The most common usage of RFID trackers are your EZ Pass (or Fast Lane or Smart Pass or whatever you call the automatic toll paying device in your car). I knew several people who didn’t want “the government” tracking where they went in their car, so the wouldn’t get an EZ Pass. I got one anyhow because I figured if the government knew I went to New York City every couple of months that would be okay. In the book however, RFID detectors have been placed all around San Francisco, and so, they can now track your every move.
As with much in the book, I’m not exactly sure how much of it is actual and how much is just plausible. It’s entirely possibly that there are RFID detectors all over San Francisco, but I’ve no idea if there are. However, there are enough factual things in the story to let you know that at the very least, many of the scenarios are quite possible.
Marcus is followed by the police one night because of his BART pass (the public transportation version of the EZ Pass). They want to know what he’s being doing in certain areas of San Francisco. It’s just routine surveillance, they tell him. And he is understandably pissed. And here Doctorow gives one of his many informative passages…. What I liked about the book is that Doctorow explains some pretty detailed and complex ideas, but he keeps in character, with the wonderment of a teen excited about a new game.
This passage in particular I found enlightening and scary:
Terrorists are really rare. In a city of twenty million like New York, there might be one or two terrorists. Maybe ten of them at the outside. 10/20,000,000 = 0.00005 percent. One twentythousandth of a percent. That’s pretty rare all right. Now, say you’ve got some software that can sift through all the bankrecords, or tollpass records, or public transit records, or phonecall records in the city and catch terrorists 99 percent of the time.
In a pool of twenty million people, a 99 percent accurate test will identify two hundred thousand people as being terrorists. But only ten of them are terrorists. To catch ten bad guys, you have to haul in and investigate two hundred thousand innocent people.
Guess what? Terrorism tests aren’t anywhere close to 99 percent accurate. More like 60 percent accurate. Even 40 percent accurate, sometimes.
What this all meant was that the Department of Homeland Security had set itself up to fail badly. They were trying to spot incredibly rare events–a person is a terrorist–with inaccurate systems.
No matter what you think about Homeland Security, or it efficiency, it’s hard to argue with these numbers.
Back to the story. Marcus is outraged by what happens, and even more so when he learns that his beloved laptop that he built has been bugged. He uses his XBox, complete with ParanoidLinux, (an operating system that encrypts EVERYTHING) installed. Soon, he is organizing a resistance movement called the XNet. And, he is no longer w1n5t0n, he is now m1k3y, and he uses all of his tricks to try and bring down the DHS.
His parents (mom is a British ex pat who loves to get her knickers in a twist about injustice and dad is a former marcher in the sixty) do not know the full extent of what happened to Marcus. When they hear about the XNet on NPR his father is appalled at these kids’ behavior. This surprises Marcus until his mom tells him that his father was devastated at the thought that Marcus was dead. Marcus’s dad has joined the ranks of people willing to sacrifice his freedom for a (false) sense of security.
Marcus tells people how to create RFID jammers [Google RFID jam for thousands of hits] which causes great disruption to San Francisco and even Marcus’ dad. The Xnet subversion spreads throughout the world, where people post videos of abuses by the DHS, and offer other ways of jamming the system. There’s even a punk festival organized by the XNet: Never Trust Anyone Under 25.
This slogan is obviously appropriated from the Yippies’ “Never Trust Anyone Under 30” (there’s a bit of a history of the Yippies explained by one of Marcus’ teachers (a great exposition resource in a YA novel)). The difference between the 60s and the 2000s is that in the 60s the police couldn’t capture everyone at a protest. Now, they can use technology to immobilize thousands of people at once. And, unlike in the 60s, the media seem to be unwilling to investigate beyond the information fed to them by the government and corporations (liberal media, ha!).
I’m not giving anymore of the book away, because even though I think it is important as a book of protest, I also thought it was a great read–I couldn’t put it down, I read it in traffic jams–and it is suspenseful as hell.
Oh, and just in case you think it’s all technology and security…there’s a pretty steamy romance brewing with a fellow XNetter too.
So, read the book! Get a copy of it somewhere: buy it, go to your library, or download the whole book for free here. No kidding. Doctorow gives away all of his works with a Creative Commons license. Why? Well, he’ll tell you here. But in a nutshell he says:
For me — for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. Of all the people who failed to buy this book today, the majority did so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free copy.
What’s a Creative Commons license? They’ll tell you here.
Doctorow is one of the great champions of freedom of information. You can tell that this story combines a number of his passions. He’s also a co-editor of one of my favorite sites: boing boing (although I didn’t know that until just recently). And here’s his own website: craphound.
The back of the book has bibliographical information about how to find and do many of the things in the books. There’s also some afterwords from Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and by Andrew “bunnie” Huang, the original Xbox hacker. The add real-life inspiration to the story.
And speaking of real life, the end of the book implores you to vote in the upcoming election (in the fictional world there’s an upcoming election, too). And, I implore you as well…if you’re old enough to vote, get the facts, learn the truth and vote against the people who are taking our freedoms away.
[UPDATE: September 27, 2008] It’s very rare that I get trecommed a YA book to Sarah, since that’s her thing, but I’m very glad I did, as she enjoyed the book too. Here’s her take on it.