A RAVE Review (of a Book I Filched from My Teenager)

Hi Readers — Why was I up till 12:45 last night? I HAD to finish, “Little hhkbbnyhrd
It’s the young adult book by boingboing’s Cory Doctorow that’s all about what would happen after a terrorist attack if the government started suspecting EVERYONE of terrorism, and most of the people were fine with this.

Naturally, the hero is a geeky/brave 17-year-old and his posse of smart friends, and the action is non-stop.  Naturally, i’ts  being made into a movie. UNnaturally, I loved it.  Normally, I’m more of a historical fiction kind of gal — think, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” —  so this was a book I had to filch from my 14-year-old (who is mortified I read one of his favorite things).

In the most exciting way, the book makes you question all the security measures we take for granted: Are they really making us safer? Are they maybe making us LESS safe? Better still, it explains so many of the issues I’m always grappling with. Like — you know how I find the Sex Offender Registry disturbing because so many of the people on it don’t pose a threat to children? And you know how I’m also upset at the idea of background checks for anyone who even walks into a school, a practice that’s becoming more  and more common? I want our kids to be safe, too. So why should these things bother me? What’s the downside, besides the occasional bureaucratic mix up?

Well here’s how Doctorow’s hero, Marcus, explains the problem of casting too wide a net when searching for evil:

If you ever decide to do something as stupid as build an automatic terrorism detector, here’s a math lesson you need to learn first. It’s called “the paradox of the false positive,” and it’s a doozy.

Say you have a new disease, called Super-AIDS. Only one in a million people gets Super-AIDS. You develop a test for Super-AIDS 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.

One in a million people have Super-AIDS. One in a hundred people that you test will generate a “false positive” — the test will say he has Super-AIDS even though he doesn’t. That’s what “99 percent accurate” means: one percent wrong.

What’s one percent of one million?

1,000,000/100 = 10,000

One in a million people has Super-AIDS. If you test a million random people, you’ll probably only find one case of real Super-AIDS. But your test won’t identify *one* person as having Super-AIDS. 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. When you try to find something really rare, your test’s accuracy has to match the rarity of the thing you’re looking for. If you’re trying to point at a single pixel on your screen, a sharp pencil is a good pointer: the pencil-tip is a lot smaller (more accurate) than the pixels. But a pencil-tip is no good at pointing at a single *atom* in your screen. For that, you need a pointer — a test — that’s one atom wide or less at the tip.

This is the paradox of the false positive, and here’s how it applies to terrorism:

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 twenty-thousandth of a percent.

That’s pretty rare all right. Now, say you’ve got some software that can sift through all the bank-records, or toll-pass records, or public transit records, or phone-call 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.

That’s such an easy-to-understand explanation of what can happen when we start suspecting too many people of any kind of evil. And rest assured, one of the innocents pulled into the vortex of “Suspected Bad Guy” is our funny, hacking (and horny) “Little Brother” hero, Marcus. Will he get out? Will he change the course of history? Will he get the cute girl with glasses?

There’s only one way to find out! (At least until they make the movie.) — Lenore

P.S. I am not blocking anyone’s comments. My WordPress filter may be doing it. I can’t even find the “missing” comments in my “Awaiting Moderation” cue. So I’m mystified and sorry. Anyway, here’s a link to a free download of the book: http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/


51 Responses to A RAVE Review (of a Book I Filched from My Teenager)

  1. Elizabeth August 3, 2010 at 9:09 pm #

    This is about what WOULD happen? You mean, if you aren’t a Muslim or related to one, right? Because otherwise, it’s about what actually is happening.

  2. Stella August 3, 2010 at 9:10 pm #

    And yet there are still many who don’t bat an eye at draconian legislation like the PATRIOT Act and wire-tapping (which both parties are responsible for) because “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

  3. L. Vellenga August 3, 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    so i guess the math we learned in school really does have real-life application!

  4. coffeegod August 3, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

    I have heard nothing but good about this book. It was on my to read list that was in my Franklin planner that some nincompoop took out of my car. Thank you for putting it back on my to read list.

  5. Jan August 3, 2010 at 10:09 pm #

    Great explanation of the math. Instead of being frightened about your kids, worry about the implications of that math… every single medical test also has a rate of false positive and false negative… how many people have been told they had cancer or HIV or something appalling when in fact they did not? How many people have taken their lives because of a cancer diagnosis that turned out to be wrong? Once again, in a different way, the “better safe than sorry” mantra turns out to fail.

    Thinking you are safe to be tested for diseases you don’t have can be as lethal as protecting your kids from dangers that are statistically unlikely. I’m glad you brought up the math Lenore. Thanks to you and thanks to the lovely and clever Cory also.

  6. Michelle the Uber Haus Frau August 3, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    Sounds like a great read, I should probably pick it up.

    On the subject of books, well, creativity in general..nothing to do with the topic of terrorism or safety, so I guess take this as an open letter…I was the weird kid/teen who liked horror. I read Goosebumps, then moved on to King, Barker, Lovecraft, and eventually on to true crime stories and books about morbid facts(of course I am in love with the Darwin Awards), and I write my own stories, some with characters dying the most horrible and twisted ways possible. By now you might be like “Holy crap, psycho lady!” but no, I have never hurt a living thing and cannot look at the real(yes, there are websites out there that post real photos, hell there are magazines in other countries that show dead people). This is where the Free Range issue comes in, and something to think about that no one really has:when your child starts entering the dark side of their imagination?

    (sorry about the quality, had to type fast)

  7. Mike August 3, 2010 at 10:18 pm #

    The Little Brother book is available for free download from the author’s website. Can’t post the link (blocked in comments), but it’s on the book’s Wikipedia page.

  8. markus baur August 3, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    question to the moderator – is it the attempt to post the link to the official download page that killed my two previous posts?



  9. Rich Wilson August 3, 2010 at 10:25 pm #

    If you look around Cory’s site at craphound, you can also see a list of schools and libraries that would like the book. So if the electronic version is fine for you, you can have your physical copy sent to someone else. I sure hope Lenore doesn’t blindly release everything from moderation or we’re going to have a whole bunch of redundancy here 🙂

  10. Eric August 3, 2010 at 10:57 pm #

    There is nothing wrong with being cautious. But when the effects of such cautiousness affects the mental and emotional well-being of any given person in a negative way (ie. paranoia, confusion, insecurities, etc…), it becomes a liability to everyone. Everyone should stop viewing things in the negative/false positives, and start seeing things in the positive. There’s always a positive to a negative, even though at times we don’t realize it.

  11. js August 3, 2010 at 11:36 pm #

    i read this one too [last weekend] after being given it by my 15 year old. i like doctorow anyway, but some of this seemed a little too pat for me. things worked out a bit too easily, but that may be par for the course with young adult lit [although i think young adults can be faced with literature about the complexity and suffering of life on earth with little ill affect]. another example is the _on_the_road_ reference, which seemed just dropped in there to give the novel something approximating ‘beat cred’ [whatever that is] …

    i used to it try and get my son to read orwell’s _1984_. he got to the part about ‘war is peace / freedom is slavery / ignorance is strength’ and said to me, “my head hurts!”

    and now he’s re-reading _little_brother_.

    so, even though i think the orwell offers him a lot, i’m just happy that he’s reading and thinking critically [about *anything*]

  12. Eric August 3, 2010 at 11:45 pm #

    @js: Thanks. I was actually looking forward to checking this book out. But now I know it “works out a bit to easily”. Guess I’ll just wait for the movie to come out. lol

  13. Anna August 3, 2010 at 11:46 pm #

    I’ve been listening to this book on a CD set from the library as I drive. My 15 yo niece was visiting for a few weeks and liked what she heard of the story so I got the book out of the library for her and she finished it in about 2-3 days.

    Then when I was at the airport to put her on a plane to go home I had a chilling experience. I received a pass to escort her through airport security to the gate until she boarded. While we were waiting in line at security, she innocently asked me what airport security was like “before”. I told her in general terms how it was completely different; pre-911 security was focussed more on 70s version hi-jackers than modern-day suicide terrorists). She responded “I guess it worth it all if it keeps us safer”.

    I have traveled by plane quite a bit, both domestically and internationally and was back on planes for an international trip with my family exactly one month after the 9/11 attacks. Like many people with Northeast connections, I have connections to families who lost loved ones in the attacks. As I travel I have observed the changes in security screenings as the authorities try to keep up with terrorists’ attempts to exploit the weaknesses. But sometimes I have my doubts about the “security”. Against my better judgement, I expressed this while we waited our turn (our line was going unusually slow).

    In a quiet voice (not exactly whispering, but definitely *sotto voce* – quiet enough that we had to tip our heads a bit closer), I said I wasn’t so sure about it all. I pointed out the continually-evolving security measures (always reactionary) represented a *massive* investment of resources, creating huge costs for everyone involved in travel from the airports to the airlines to the travelers, not to mention loss of privacy and hassles for all the non-terrorists travelers (which is just about everyone) while they look for potential terrorists (which despite our fears, is a really, really tiny number of people), much like sifting a needle from a haystack. In some ways, the terrorists were getting their wish without harming additional people. We’ve turned into sheeple when it comes to travel now.

    There must be better ways to highlight the “needle’s” presence without disturbing so much of the “haystack”. Perhaps the extra time at the security bottlenecks and loss of privacy makes the flying public feel “safe”, but it’s also possible that it’s just as much an elaborate demonstration for our benefit to prove the govt is “doing something”. Do we really know if flying is”safe”? Can they really detect terrorists with this elaborate sifting scheme and prevent would-be terrorists from flying? Are terrorists hatching plots on unsecure targets while security measures focus on screening non-terrorist travelers?

    We all know people (who aren’t terrorists) who realized sometime after passing through airport security some contraband item they forgot about went through security undetected. We all know innocent people who were flagged for some unknown reason and unnecessarily hassled and delayed at security. Packing for and planning a trip timetable has so many new implications now. I pointed out to my niece that a certain very gentle senior citizen near and dear to both of us receives the “extra special” security treatment (extra delays and extra screening measures) every single time he flies, most likely because every Sunday night since the war in Iraq started he and other peaceful-minded people attend a peace vigil on a public street in front of a church, holding anti-war and peace signs (they are completely ignored by the community and passing motorists). TSA must have his name on a security list of sorts; they must be complete imbeciles if they think he is a risk to the flying public.

    Then, ironically or not so ironically, after my niece and I passed through the metal detectors without incidence and were about to pick up our belongings on the conveyer belt, we were both asked to get into a glass cubicle together. Another TSA person opened the cubicle door on the opposite side and asked us to identify our belongings from the belt, which they picked up and carried with us to screening stations behind the general screening area. My niece and I were sent to separate areas, though still in public view, though they had me stand facing a wall so I couldn’t see what was happening with her.

    It was sort of a routine screening in some ways, but at the same time it didn’t feel ordinary at all. There were several TSA people hovering nearby. I was asked questions about my place of residence and how long I’ve lived there, about my purpose of travel and my destination (I explained wasn’t traveling, only accompanied my minor niece to the gate for boarding), and so on. I answered the questions, but the hair on the back of my neck was bristling. I was asked to submit to a pat-down search, then a screening with a metal detector; I have traveled internationally every year since 911 and this was the most, um, thorough pat-down I’ve ever experienced, like this time they were actually looking for something instead of going through the motions. I do understand pat-down screenings have changed since the underwear-bomber incident, so that probably reflects this more, um, intense pat down technique, but when you know you *aren’t* a threat to the flying public and you are touched in this personal way (like a medical exam in public, but through clothing) it feels really creepy and I resent it. My purse was also searched and tested with explosive-detecting swabs, which I realize is standard, but it was a more exhaustive search than usual. Eventually my purse was returned to me and I was allowed to join my niece and proceed to the gate area (where my niece’s flight was already boarding). Her “search” wasn’t so intense, according to her. I wonder why?

    She was on a coast-to-coast flight and had to board without lunch because the “extra security bonus” took up all of the extra time so I could buy a lunch for her to take on the flight.

    It feels paranoid, and perhaps that’s because I was currently listening to the Little Brother in the car and we were discussing it on the drive to the airport, but I couldn’t help but assume that TSA electronically eavesdrops on travelers’ conversations in the security area, and my quietly expressed opinions and musing about the stepped-up security measures sparked the show of “enhanced screening”, perhaps as a punitive delaying tactic. Perhaps it was just random and my number was up for bonus screening. Either way, did it make the traveling public any “safer” while they focussed on me, a middle aged suburban mother and aunt, with absolutely no terrorist connections or intent on committing terrorism?

  14. Rich Wilson August 3, 2010 at 11:48 pm #

    Trying to figure out why posts with links are getting eaten…


  15. Rich Wilson August 3, 2010 at 11:53 pm #

    Hm, it seems that Cory’s personal domain..

    2 words
    1st word: synonym for junk (or perhaps feces), and starts with c and ends with p, and has an r and an a in the middle.
    2nd word: a type of dog, used for hunting, starts with h and rhymes with ’round’
    Put them together and you have a word that will make your comment ‘disappear’.

  16. Rich Wilson August 3, 2010 at 11:54 pm #

    Let’s try those words separately. (sorry to the subscribers, but I just can’t let go of a good mystery)


  17. Rich Wilson August 3, 2010 at 11:55 pm #

    but if we put them together as in craphound (posting too quickly, slow down…)

  18. Dot Khan August 4, 2010 at 12:16 am #

    Strangers are people we have not met. If we avoid strangers because we believe that most are evil, then it follows that our own families and friends include ax murderers and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.

  19. Lori Walsh August 4, 2010 at 12:19 am #

    “There must be better ways to highlight the “needle’s” presence without disturbing so much of the “haystack””

    Yes, it’s called profiling.

  20. Rich Wilson August 4, 2010 at 12:25 am #

    You need to distinguish between behavioral profiling and demographic profiling. If you target your searches based on what people look like, you’ll find your terrorists don’t look like ‘terrorists’. They adapt to fit what you’re looking for. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with giving extra attention to the person who’s acting ‘hinky’ (to use a Bruce Schneier term)

  21. markus baur August 4, 2010 at 12:34 am #

    there are only two problems with behavioral profiling:

    1. it needs well trained and thus well paid persons doing it – not rent-a-cops paid minimum wage .. so it will be expensive

    but cost is not acceptable

    2. it needs the acceptance that these well trained people may use their judgment and that they will make mistakes using this judgment .. so it will need trust

    but our civilisation is less and less willing to give trust – instead it creates brain dead rules that have to be followed to the letter and woe to the agent that deviates from these rules .. or worse who uses his/her judgment and makes a (honest) mistake

  22. Greg August 4, 2010 at 12:47 am #

    My dad was a cop for ~30 years, and said that little inkling that something just isn’t right is the best tool a police officer has. But, as markus said, it does take well trained and experienced (and thus well paid) people to do it.

  23. BrianJ August 4, 2010 at 12:49 am #

    @ Elizabeth – Thank you for that statement. You’re right. And that fact is hidden from the rest of us who are not faced with that burden.

    The CEO of my company is a Sikh (born and raised in New York). He has brown skin, a full beard, wears a turban and travels a lot. The running joke around the office is to not travel with him unless you want to spend a lot of extra time in the airport. We laugh at the joke because there’s nothing else to do but laugh.

  24. Eric August 4, 2010 at 12:49 am #

    Guess Orwell was pretty accurate about the future. Maybe not 1984, but big brother is definitely watching now. IMO, though it deals with the security of each of us, it also has to do with different agencies getting more funding. And as we all know, not all funds are allocated for what they are intended for, be it government or corporate. As well, fear is one of the best ways to control the masses. What we buy, what we watch, what we listen to, even what we eat and do.

    A lot of these people living in fear, have stopped/forgotten to LIVE.

  25. Eric August 4, 2010 at 12:58 am #

    I just happened upon this video article with Sly and Leno. Thought it was funny, with reference to “fear”. What Sly says between 0:33 – 0:45.


  26. DMT August 4, 2010 at 1:17 am #

    My husband got me the sequel to Freakanomics last Christmas. Apparently there is a man in the U.K. who HAS developed a software banking algorithm that can idenitfy potential terrorists. There are many factors in this algorithm but the most notable one focuses on a particular banking behavior. Apparently, it can identify a potential terrorist 100% of the time, weeding out the false positives.

    Since the book didn’t reveal this secret, I can’t vouch for it’s veracity. However, it did get me thinking: what if someone could develop a software algorithm that could identify potential pedophiles 100% of the time? Think of how much fear this coud eliminate! All we parents would have to do is buy the software, punch in the parameters, and voila! Instant print-outs of everyone in our family, social group, neighborhood, or even city that our children have to avoid! Think of how much time we’d save as parents. Instead of teaching our kids to use common sense (and sometimes their gut reactions), we could just hand them a print-out of everyone within a 100-mile radius that they need to stay away from. We could even outfit them with GPS systems, so if they do happen to go near one of the “potentials” an alarm will sound, alerting the parents to the danger. The possibilities are endless.

    They’re also kind of scary. Since I don’t see this software coming to fruition anytime soon, I guess I’ll just have to continue with parenting the old-fashioned way.

  27. Eric August 4, 2010 at 1:53 am #

    @DMT: That would definitely be something, but as they say, “the only certain thing is death and taxes”. When it comes to profiling, be it geographical or behavioral, there is and will always be a margin of error. For one thing, the information inputted in will have to be spot on, and how accurate can any info be when you are trying to get it without the other person knowing. It would all be based on hear say, and one’s own observation. As we all know, we all can see one situation differently. So which is accurate?

    Strategies like that algorithm or profiling is a tool to HELP, not as a solution. It’s not the end all be all, and should never be considered as such. I’m sure that if anyone of us was actually deemed a terrorist or a pedophile based on these strategies, and we know we aren’t, it would cause much damage to ourselves as well as our family and friends. Don’t judge, unless you can accept being judged yourself, I always say.

  28. mrhclass August 4, 2010 at 2:24 am #

    Thanks for the wonderfully simple explanation of the statistics of false positives. If young people read this they will understand more about the topic than most adults.
    Now, any chance in finding an equally succinct explanation of the difference between causation and correlation? I’m getting really sick of having pointless discussions with people who’ve never grasped this basic concept!

  29. angelsandurchinsblog August 4, 2010 at 2:45 am #

    When they make the film, I know just the person to write the screenplay… Go for it, Lenore!

  30. Frau_Mahlzahn August 4, 2010 at 2:51 am #

    That’s a good way of looking at it, although I do think that the explanation is a tidbit too much on the wordy side (I was thinking about ordering the book, but now I’m wondering: is the rest of the book just as wordy?).

    So long,

  31. Heartfruit August 4, 2010 at 3:06 am #

    I’d also like to give a shout out for Cory Doctorow new YA book, For The Win. While it does over look the fact that most MMO gold sold on the black/gray market is stolen not farmed… it does remind us how children in other parts of the world live.

  32. Eric August 4, 2010 at 4:26 am #

    @mrhclass: How about this one?

    Let’s take some other ludicrous examples to explain the problem of correlation vs. causation

    Define “T” as the temperature of a day in Manhattan, and “I” as the number of ice cream vendors out on that day. The correlation between these two is almost certainly quite positive (how many vendors are out there in January?).

    But does this prove that ice cream vendors cause it to be hot day? Obviously causation goes the other way. Simply, a hotter day brings out more ice cream vendors. Common sense tells you that. Unless of course you believe in conspiracy theories.

    When it comes down to it, it’s all about stubbornness. If someone really believes in pink elephants with purple and green polka dots, there is nothing anyone can make him/ger believe otherwise. Even if part of him/her knows it to be untrue. The way they think and justify it within themselves is, “I’m doing this to protect my child, how can it be wrong?”. It gives them SOME peace of mind, but not complete peace of mind. Protecting your child isn’t wrong, how it’s done can be. Not just to the child, but to oneself as well. I can see someone having a nervous breakdown living in a world of constant fear and trying to do something, anything about all of it.

  33. Donna August 4, 2010 at 4:31 am #

    @ DMT – The problem is that pedophiles are but one minor threat to people (minor in that pedophiles are not all that common as opposed to molestation being a minor impact on the child). If we never teach our children to use common sense and gut reactions, they may be protected against pedophiles but are going to be sitting ducks for all the other people who would seek to hurt them throughout life. There are going to be murders, rapists, muggers, armed robbers, thieves, etc. that your pedophile matrix wouldn’t identify.

  34. DMT August 4, 2010 at 5:09 am #

    @ Donna, I was actually being a bit facetious with my imagined software. I do not expect to see it come to fruition, nor would I want it if it did.

    Unfortunately, I would be willing to bet there are many parents that WOULD want this sofware. And they would be doing a grave disservice to their children, for all the reasons you mentioned.

  35. BrianJ August 4, 2010 at 6:17 am #

    @DMT – even worse, many would want the software and accept an unreasonably high false positive rate (e.g. would accept a 99% accuracy rate).

  36. ebohlman August 4, 2010 at 8:12 am #

    A good explanation of correlation and the fallacies associated with it can be found in Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man; even commentators who strongly disagree with most of Gould’s analyses generally say that his explanation of correlation and factor analysis are an excellent introduction to the subject.

    I’ll briefly touch on one correlational fallacy, known as the ecological fallacy, because I saw an example of it in another thread. There are two kinds of correlations: individual correlations and ecological correlations. The former are based on observations of individuals; the latter are based on observations of aggregates. In the example here, the correlation is between income and birth rate. An individual correlation uses families as the unit of analysis; you look at how much money a family makes and how many kids they have. An ecological correlation uses regions (countries, states, counties, etc.) as the unit of analysis; you look at the average family income and average family size in each region.

    As it turns out, the individual correlation between income and family size is positive whereas the ecological correlation is negative. Poorer regions generally have higher birth rates than wealthier regions, but within each region, poorer people have lower birth rates than wealthier people. Thus it’s incorrect to say that poor people have higher birth rates than middle-class people.

    A similar example: in the last 3 US Presidential elections, higher-income people were considerably more likely to vote for the Republican. But states with higher average incomes were considerably more likely to give their electoral votes to the Democrat.

    The upshot of all of this is that group averages simply don’t behave like individual measurements, no matter how much we “intuitively” expect them to. Believe it or not, the root cause of ecological fallacies is forgetting a simple bit of elementary-school arithmetic, namely that the sum of two or more fractions is not the same as the sum of their numerators divided by the sum of their denominators.

  37. Angie August 4, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    Another example:

    CORRELATION — nearly every person throughout all of history who has ever owned a dog is now dead. Within the next hundred years, all else being equal, every person who owns a dog right now will be dead. Therefore there is 100% correlation between dog ownership and death.

    CAUSATION — given the above facts, clearly owning a dog causes death.

    The first is true and the second is garbage. But assuming that correlation (two things which vary together in some way) implies causation (one variation causing the other) leads to all sorts of false conclusions. Some of them are funny, like the one about dogs. The ones that sound plausible just cause trouble.

    Angie, who also loved Little Brother

  38. Jodi August 4, 2010 at 9:10 pm #

    I read this book on my netbook while travelling and thoroughly enjoyed it, writing about it not long after the amazon.com fiasco in which they yanked copies of 1984 from Kindles: http://blogs.bedfordstmartins.com/highschoolbits/rhetorical-purposestrategy/debate/cory-doctorow-amazon-and-the-copyright-police/

    As an AP English teacher, I’ve been recommending it far and wide as a good companion to 1984; the two books together reverberate with even more relevance than either one alone.

    And yes, if you would like to help make this book more available to teachers and students who might not be able to purchase it, Doctorow subscribes to a program that allows you to purchase hard copies for schools and libraries, even though you can in fact download all his books for free from his website.

    I recently read For The Win, and found it less compelling a read than Little Brother, which is too bad, because the economic and socio-political issues it addresses are just as significant, if maybe not quite as sexy as “the war on terror.”

    It’s worth noting, too, that the afterward to Little Brother was written by security expert Bruce Schneier, who recently posted to his blog a review of the book How Risky Is It Really (http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2010/08/book_review_how.html), which readers here might appreciate.

  39. HappyNat August 4, 2010 at 9:21 pm #

    My favorite causation/correlation example, I still remember from undergrad is about fire trucks and damage by fire. If you look at a log of fire trucks dispatched to the scenes of fires you will notice that the more fire trucks sent to a scene the greater the damage(in dollars) to the property. Clearly, all these fire trucks are destroying the property so we need to send less trucks to fight fires.

  40. su N August 4, 2010 at 9:44 pm #

    I will be witness to the fact Lenore does not block comments. I have disagreed with her and my comments always show up.

    Yes, I have been suspicious of national security ever since they started putting metal detectors in every city/county/state building. The whole thing seems strangly 1984ish. What seems even stranger is citizens of this country think this is a good idea and are willing to use their taxes to pay for it too.

    Having freedom means taking risks, plain and simple.

  41. Hazel August 4, 2010 at 9:55 pm #

    “I pointed out the continually-evolving security measures (always reactionary) represented a *massive* investment of resources, creating huge costs for everyone involved in travel from the airports to the airlines to the travelers, not to mention loss of privacy and hassles for all the non-terrorists travelers (which is just about everyone) while they look for potential terrorists (which despite our fears, is a really, really tiny number of people), much like sifting a needle from a haystack. In some ways, the terrorists were getting their wish without harming additional people. We’ve turned into sheeple when it comes to travel now.”

    Oh man, I wish it was as easy as looking for a needle in a haystack. See, if we look for a needle in a haystack, we can identify the needle immediately we see it. The needle clearly doesn’t belong in the haystack. A needle in a haystack is easy. What we’re actually looking for is a particular type of strand of hay within a haystack. And we don’t even know if this particular haystack contains this type of strand – it could be in another haystack, it could be in none of the haystacks. No matter how many machines we try to invent to filter out the types of stands which we’ve deemed to be safe, locating the mysterious elusive strand which may or may not be there is still a virtually impossible task.

    I should think that these strands of hay are more likely to be located through knowing in advance about an incoming strand, rather than all the machinery at the airport which is supposed to be able to pick up bad strands.

  42. Rich Wilson August 4, 2010 at 10:36 pm #

    And whenever we come up with a new hay-strand-detection-method, the strands of hay change. Strands of hay wearing explosive shoes? Take off your shoes! Strands of hay carrying liquids? 1-2-3! We have eliminated explosive shoes and liquid- what next?

    I should think that these strands of hay are more likely to be located through knowing in advance about an incoming strand, rather than all the machinery at the airport which is supposed to be able to pick up bad strands.

    Exactly right. And being prepared to deal with the consequences of missing a strand of hay. That doesn’t sell votes, but it’s going to happen.

  43. Shannon August 4, 2010 at 10:49 pm #

    Thank you for the recommendation! This had been sitting in my queue for awhile now, but I decided to move it up–and I was *not* sorry. I read it in a few hours yesterday: breathlessly. The world of post-9/11 adult literature has been…disappointing, to say the least. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” shouldn’t have ever been published. Totally execrable. It was a joy to see a young adult novel grappling with the emotional and intellectual implications of technology, good and bad, and offering a staunch defense of the old and still prescient Ben Franklin argument that those who give up liberty to secure a little freedom get and deserve neither. Strong characterization, beautiful book, and a little hope for the future.

  44. Hazel August 4, 2010 at 11:11 pm #

    “Since the book didn’t reveal this secret, I can’t vouch for it’s veracity. However, it did get me thinking: what if someone could develop a software algorithm that could identify potential pedophiles 100% of the time?”

    No such thing as a potential paedophile. A paedophile is a person who is sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children. That’s all. A paedophile is not a criminal, he or she is someone with a seriously messed-up sexual orietentation who needs help. A paedophile who views child porn is a criminal, a paedophile who abuses children is a criminal.

    A man who molests a 15 year old girl is not a paedophile. She is not pre-pubescent. This hypothetical molestor is a criminal, but not a paedophile.

    Not all molestors are paeophiles, not all paedophiles are molestors.

  45. Eika August 5, 2010 at 7:07 am #

    It’s a good thing you included the download link; when I read the title of the book, I opened my webpage to include it in my comment if it wasn’t.

    Yes, it really is a great book. There’s actually a lot of them out there now under the YA label. But don’t tell anyone!

    Seriously. I’m going to college because I want to be a Young Adult author. Little Brother is not the only book that really, really, REALLY makes a point about the world and can influence people (and I have dozens of recommendations, if you want them). But I know parents who would deem them- and other books like Little Brother- too dangerous for their kids to read.

    I love that label, though. If it’s for Young Adults, it can’t be scary, right? Judy Blume style, not serious.

  46. Owen August 5, 2010 at 8:10 am #

    Succinct. What a marvelous modern passage on a complex subject for a fictional work. And here I though ‘Numbers’ was real TV, and the FBI had all the bestest mathematicians on tap. Or perhaps, in the words of Winston, “on tap, not on top.”

  47. Jahn Ghalt August 7, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    Late (as usual) to the thread – chiming in anyway.

    An oblique response to Lenore (whose 14-year-old) :

    “is mortified I read one of his favorite things).”

    This make me recall some of the stuff i was reading at ages 12-16+, which was rapidly corrupting my tender young mind – good thing good ol’ Mom did not pick those up – she would have been the one to be mortified.

    to /js, who introduced his 15-yr-old to “1984” (good for you, BTW):

    I was about that age when I first read 1984. It was mildly disturbing then. I read it at age 25 – and it scared the living daylights out of me. Older, presumably less tender, but way more fearful of the potentially predatory STATE.

  48. Lihtox August 9, 2010 at 12:51 am #

    @DMT: I think that if we came up with a machine that could detect pedophiles (that is, people who are attracted to children), we’d discover a lot more pedophiles than we had imagined, most of whom would never harm a child and who successfully keep their sexual urges in check, the same way most of us keep most of our sexual urges under check.

  49. Bob Davis August 9, 2010 at 5:14 am #

    Don’t be bashful about reading “Young Adult” books–I’m a Harry Potter fan–even went to the local independent bookstore at half past midnight about three years ago to pick up my pre-ordered copy of “HP-7” on publication day. I’ll have to check out “Little Brother”!

  50. Scott August 9, 2010 at 10:18 am #

    I am really glad to see that explanation of the statistics involved in “Super AIDS” testing. This exact same sort of problem was covered in the calculus based “statistics and probability” class I took in college. Calculus is not needed to understand the math, but unfortunately this sort fairly of analysis is not covered in the non-science based statistics classes.

    The example applies to drug testing, which I oppose even though I am not a drug user. Most people you test for drugs at work or school do not take drugs. The numbers depend on the type of work. Of fast food workers and bus drivers, about 1 in 10 use drugs. Of teachers, about 1 in 1000 (numbers not accurate, quoting from memory). Drug tests are notoriously inaccurate. Statistics quoted are best case scenarios that don’t exist in the real world. And we all know that airline pilots can’t eat poppy bagels because they will test positive for heroin! The drug test used to determine if a material is marijuana is completely inaccurate and indicates positive for sage and incense!

    So you are a teacher and you take a 99% accurate test. There is a 0.1% chance you are on drugs and it will catch you. There is also a 1% chance of a false positive that will cause you to lose your teaching license and perhaps be arrested.

    If you test 1000 teachers, 1 will be correctly positive and 10 will be false positive. That means that of the 11 testing positive, 10, or 91% of them, were fired from their jobs wrongly. Something that is 91% inaccurate in practice should not be used in the real world for anything. Yet these sorts of tests are used all the time right now and are ruining the lives of innocent people.

    Unfortunately, because of math illiteracy, almost no one I explain this to is capable of comprehending the simple math involved.

  51. Scott August 9, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    I should add this for perspective. For those who haven’t observed this math illiteracy, here is a typical real life conversation I have had while trying to explain why 99% accurate drug tests don’t mean that 99% of people who test positive are guilty.

    “99% accuracy is 99%. It is not 91% inaccuracy. That’s a simple mathematical fact. I’m not surprised though that you can’t figure this out Scott since you’re obviously one of the drug users. I don’t have anything to hide myself and I am not scared of being tested. Obviously you have something to fear and we all know what that is.”