Study Guide

Little Brother Cunning and Cleverness

By Cory Doctorow

Cunning and Cleverness

Chapter 1

I prefer to inject a little randomness into my attacks on gait­recognition: I put a handful of gravel into each shoe. Cheap and effective, and no two steps are the same. Plus you get a great reflexology foot massage in the process (I kid. Reflexology is about as scientifically useful as gait­recognition). (1.69)

Sometimes simple solutions are the best way to beat complex systems.

Chapter 3

If you stare at someone long enough, they'll eventually look back at you. She did, and her face slammed into a totally different configuration, dispassionate, even robotic. The smile vanished in an instant. (3.65)

Teachers do this stare technique all the time in classes. If you look at them, then they can call on you. Resist the power of the stare.

Chapter 5

The good news was, once I was done, I had a machine that was a whole pound lighter than the Dell I'd had my eye on, ran faster, and cost a third of what I would have paid Dell. The bad news was that assembling a laptop is like building one of those ships in a bottle. It's all finicky work with tweezers and magnifying glasses, trying to get everything to fit in that little case. Unlike a full­sized PC ­­ which is mostly air ­­ every cubic millimeter of space in a laptop is spoken for. (5.103)

What does this information about Marcus tell readers about his character? Do you see more evidence for those characteristics in the text?

Chapter 7
Marcus Yallow

Booger sighed a put­upon sigh. "Look, Marcus, we're on your side here. We use this system to catch bad guys. To catch terrorists and drug dealers. Maybe you're a drug dealer yourself. Pretty good way to get around the city, a Fast Pass. Anonymous."

"What's wrong with anonymous? It was good enough for Thomas Jefferson. And by the way, am I under arrest?"

"Let's take him home," Zit said. "We can talk to his parents."

"I think that's a great idea," I said. "I'm sure my parents will be anxious to hear how their tax dollars are being spent ­­"

I'd pushed it too far. (7.26-30)

Sometimes being clever with the police just gets you into more trouble. This seems to be one of Marcus's special talents. What other scenes can you find to illustrate this idea in the text? Or is this just a rare exception?

Chapter 8
Marcus Yallow

"Seriously. We can do this. We can mess up the profiles easily. Getting people pulled over is easy."

She sat up and pushed her hair off her face and looked at me. I felt a little flip in my stomach, thinking that she was really impressed with me.

"It's the arphid cloners," I said. "They're totally easy to make. Just flash the firmware on a ten­dollar Radio Shack reader/writer and you're done. What we do is go around and randomly swap the tags on people, overwriting their Fast Passes and FasTraks with other people's codes. That'll make everyone skew all weird and screwy, and make everyone look guilty. Then: total gridlock."

Van pursed her lips and lowered her shades and I realized she was so angry she couldn't speak. (8.34-37)

Marcus can figure out smart ways to use technology, but will he ever be clever enough to figure out the girls in his life? Stay tuned.

Say you have a new disease, called Super­AIDS. Only one in a million people gets Super­AIDS. You develop a test for Super­AIDS that's 99 percent accurate. I mean, 99 percent of the time, it gives the correct result ­­ true if the subject is infected, and false if the subject is healthy. You give the test to a million people.

[…] If you test a million random people, you'll probably only find one case of real Super­AIDS. But your test won't identify one person as having Super­AIDS. It will identify 10,000 people as having it.

Your 99 percent accurate test will perform with 99.99 percent inaccuracy.

That's the paradox of the false positive. (8.58, 62-64)

Marcus not only understands statistics, he uses them to wreak havoc. Maybe we all need to get better at stats. Stat.

Chapter 9

We had spies in our midst. (9.119)

Marcus has figured this out all from reading an online quiz people are sharing on their blogs. Does this mean that our favorite internet quizzes are actually all from spies? How else will we figure out what kind of superheroes and/or Disney characters we are?

Chapter 14
Angela Carvelli

[Ange:] "Oh, just Google it. I'm sure someone's written an article on holding a successful [press conference]. I mean, if the President can manage it, I'm sure you can. He looks like he can barely tie his shoes without help."

We ordered more coffee.

"You are a very smart woman," I said. (14.121-123)

George W. Bush was president of the United States when this book was published. He said things like "I think we agree, the past is over" and "I know that the human being and the fish can coexist" — statements like these launched thousands of internet memes, websites, and Facebook status updates.

Chapter 20

We walked like that for six or seven blocks, looking at who was near us, what cars went past. Zeb told me about five­person trails, where five different undercovers traded off duties following you, making it nearly impossible to spot them. You had to go somewhere totally desolate, where anyone at all would stand out like a sore thumb. (20.108)

Yet more useful advice for when you next find yourself on the run, courtesy of Zeb and Marcus.

Here's where secrecy hurts crypto. The Enigma cipher was flawed. Once [Alan] Turing looked hard at it, he figured out that the Nazi cryptographers had made a mathematical mistake. By getting his hands on an Enigma Machine, Turing could figure out how to crack any Nazi message, no matter what key it used.

That cost the Nazis the war. I mean, don't get me wrong. That's good news. Take it from a Castle Wolfenstein veteran. You wouldn't want the Nazis running the country.
After the war, cryptographers spent a lot of time thinking about this. The problem had been that Turing was smarter than the guy who thought up Enigma. Any time you had a cipher, you were vulnerable to someone smarter than you coming up with a way of breaking it.

And the more they thought about it, the more they realized that anyone can come up with a security system that he can't figure out how to break. But no one can figure out what a smarter person might do.
(6.67-70)

Alan Turing was smarter than Nazis. The war Turing was fighting was more clear-cut than the War on Terror, where enemy and ally are hard to distinguish. Also, whenever you make a secret code you want to get lots and lots of people to test it. This is why so many programmers believe in open source programming. Even if they aren't fighting the Nazis.

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