Initial Reflections on Little Brother Competition

It feels like a l-o-o-o-o-n-g time ago when I first announced the Little Brother competition on these pages. I did not at that point know quite what to expect. I had been a geeky kid, very into computers, and desperate to learn anything about them. Computing in schools at that time was not so good, and was only an afterthought in terms of its place on the curriculum. I don’t know how much that has changed since, and I suspect that computers will always be something that geeky kids will learn more through experimentation than guided lessons. The kind of technology that I was working with as a kid, and the kind of puzzles they presented, were very different from the ones kids have to tackle today, but then again, perhaps not. One thing remains the same: a logical manner of thinking, a gift for systematically attacking a problem from every angle, will still get you far, and this will certainly be the case if you start asking questions and looking for answers at an early age.

Still, I had no idea when setting the competition whether I might wind up looking a fool for pitching it ridiculously high. Our school currently has students to year 8, and that is really quite young to be taking on a problem such as e-mail encryption which, though it has become simpler, and though it is easier on the Mac than on PC, involves several steps which frequently frustrate the efforts of seasoned journalists.

Nevertheless, the book, Little Brother, was one that I was desperate for our kids to engage with, and I am keen to push for computers to be used creatively in the classroom, ie. to be used for coding and understood, rather than simply used on the level of pre-packaged applications, let alone exclusively for proprietorial software. What’s more, I passionately believe that users of many of the kinds of technology we see in use today, let alone those that are being developed and which have not yet been thought of, must understand it well in order not to be used and abused by it, and by other, more knowledgeable users. Schools are, rightly, big on videos and games discussing basic internet safety, but this is very far from sufficient to prevent children being taken for a ride, giving away their data and information about themselves in ways that may not be in their interests, and so on and so forth. Little Brother brings these themes to the fore in ways that I believe to be important. And so I pushed on and put up the competition flyers around the school, put up QR code links to videos and articles, and talked about it on Twitter and the like.

Could I have done it better? Undoubtedly. I have also ended up with more copies of Little Brother than I will be giving away to competition winners. But, so what?! We’ll use them. I’ll put them to use in reading groups and the like, and we still have fewer Cory Doctorow books than Enid Blyton’s, and who’s reading them?

All told, the fact that any student managed to do what was a very tricky research, ICT and writing task, makes me proud of having had the idea and the persistence to follow it through when no other member of staff knew what I was talking about (mostly, they still don’t). It makes me proud too, of our students, and, by extension, the kids who may be real world versions of Doctorow’s characters. It also makes me think there might be hope that technology may work for us in the future, not us for it.


Little Brother Competition winning entry

Little Brother Competition Answers

Note: it’s quite long (just around 1500 word).

1. Q) Send an encrypted e-mail to one of my two Park Lane e-mail accounts.

A) This e-mail should be encrypted. [It was – ed.]

2. Q) Describe, as well as you can, how you found out how to do it.

A) The steps that I took: (note it was not as straight forward as the following describes – I did many more test emails, little bit of poking around other key servers, etc.)

– Visited and read everything about this competition.

– I took photos of the clues that were displayed around the school and, when I arrived home, analyzed them, taking notes about things that may seem important (any websites or names).

– I then did some research about the names that I had noted (OpenPGP) and after that, visited the websites from the clues ( and I discovered is what is called a “key server” (it serves as website where people can upload and find other people’s public keys).

– After getting a larger idea of what everything is, I downloaded the GPG Suite from and installed it onto my Mac.

– When I finished doing more research about encrypting and the GPG Suite, I opened the GPG Keychain application – that came with the GPG Suite – and pressed “New”. I filled in all my details (name, e-mail address) and unchecking the “Key Expires” box, then generated my key.

– After doing more research on the process of encrypting and decrypting an email, I ran a couple tests, sending the encrypted e-mail to a second account and decrypting it, finding that everything was in order.

– Taking a look at how to encrypt an e-mail with a public key, I went to the key server,, and went around, digging for any reference to the library e-mail address.

– After some looking around for a bit, I found the library’s public key in View listings > Prague, Czech Republic and clicking on the fingerprint.

– Following that, I copied it into a TextEdit document and named the document using example provided by the key server in which that public key is stored (pubkey.78126D0601E3631.Librarian.asc).

– I then imported the public key into my keychain by dragging it in.

– When I inspected everything to make sure everything was good, I opened up the mail application and wrote my test e-mail that I would send you. When I finished filling in your e-mail address and typing the short length of text and I pressed the small lock icon (which encrypts the e-mail), I sent it.

– After I received the e-mail from you telling me the encryption was correct, I wrote this e-mail and I will sent it in the same fashion.

3. Q) Describe, as well as you can, why anybody would need or desire to do it.

A) People would want to encrypt an e-mail to prevent any prying eyes to see the e-mail’s contents. Normally someone would encrypt an e-mail containing information only they and the person they are sending the encrypted e-mail to would want to read (e.g.: account information, sporting match strategies and other private matters).

4. Q) Describe, as clearly as you can, how someone can do the same.

A) Step-by-step instructions:

Stuff you need:

– A Mac (I do not know how to do it on a Windows/Linux)

– Your administrator password

– The public key of the person who you want to send the encrypted e-mail to


1. Open you Mac and go to Scroll down a little and click “Download GPG Suite” (note: NOT “GPG Suite Beta 4”).

2. After it downloaded, open it and install. You will need the administrator’s password in order to install it correctly.

3. After that, go to the search bar (or Command+Space Bar) and type in “GPG Keychain”. Once you have found it, open it.

4. You are going to want to create your own key, so click “New” in the top left-hand corner.

5. Then, fill in your full name and e-mail address. Check the “Upload public key after generation” box as well. Drop down the advanced options and decide if you want your key to expire (uncheck the box if you don’t want it to and check it if you do – but if you do this then you will have to change the expiry date to whatever you see fit). Once you are done, click “Generate key”. You will be asked to create a passphrase so do it – make sure you keep you passphrase a secret!

6. After that, find public key belonging to the person you want to send the encrypted e-mail to. Tell him/her to either tell you which key server it is on or him/her to send it to you.

7. Once you have acquired the public key, make sure the extension is .asc but if not then change it to that.

8. When you made sure its .asc (the icon should look like a document with keys on it with ASC underneath), drag your friend’s public key into the GPG Keychain. This imports the public key to your keychain.

9. After you have done that, open the Mail application (that comes pre-installed when you first buy your Mac). I suggest you use the Mail application because it is easier.

10. Compose a new letter (there should be 3 differences: a greyed-out tab in the top right-hand corner and two buttons next to the “From:” section: one a lock to encrypt the e-mail, the other to sign it) and fill the “To:” section with your friend’s e-mail address like you would do normally. Make sure your e-mail address is the one you inputted when you created your key. Write the email.

11. When the e-mail has been written and all the information is correct, the greyed out “OpenPGP” tab will become green. When that happens, click the lock button so that the lock is closed. This means that the e-mail will be encrypted.

12. Once you have done that, click send!

13. If you receive a reply that is encrypted, copy and paste the entire response into a text document of your choice.

14. Then, select the entirety of the encrypted response and go to the top with your text document’s name and go to “Services”. Once you have found that, find the “OpenPGP: Decrypt Selection” and click it. Enter the passphrase of you private key and it should convert from the gibberish that was before to legible text.

5. Q) Describe, as well as you can, anything you learned in the course of researching for this competition that you were not directly looking for.

A) I always hear people say that they are so vulnerable to hackers and spies and they can do nothing about it, but, combined with a bit of effort, you can be more secure on a computer than you might think. Also that being secure is a hard thing to get a grip of but once you do understand and get a good idea of what you are doing, it seems… natural and not as arduous as other people may think. So yes, I did learn a bunch of things about morality and understanding the Internet.

6. Q) If competing as a group, describe, as well as you can, what roles you took and how you worked together, as well as any problems you had.

A) I was working solo so all the roles were played by me. I encountered many problems along the course of this competition though. First off, my most major issue and took the longest to solve was encrypting an e-mail with the library’s public key. The fact that GPG Keychain constantly could not find the library public key on the key server bugged me and after a long and strenuous think spanning a couple of days, I decided to keep it simple and not overcomplicate it by just not finding the key on the key server and hope GPG Keychain would automatically find and select the public key when I inputted the library e-mail address into to “To:” section. And surprise, surprise, it worked. I should also add to the answer of question #5 that you should never underestimate what sophisticated software can do.

A few minor problems showed up along the way, for example me not being able to find the library’s public key, but that was solved swiftly when I double-checked the websites and eventually uncovered it in

7. Q) Describe, as well as you can, what you most enjoyed about this competition.

A) I enjoyed, as I am sure other would enjoy, the feeling of when you find something you have been looking for is quite thrilling, especially if it is a major part to the project, for example finding the library’s public key and when I realized my encrypting is correct. As well as that, I enjoyed the overall experience, researching as seeing what wonders are hidden in the world of computers.

Little Brother competition update #1

Ok booknerds where are we at? Well, it was exciting times over the weekend with one entry to the Little Brother competition. Remember, the closing date will be two weeks from the first valid entry, so an entry so early (and before I have had a chance to speak to all the children eligible) would have been an unexpected game changer. I first heard about this entry over the weekend at the Christmas Market where my library MacBooks were being used to show some really quite exceptional videos made by our year 8 kids and I was unable to access my work computer to check whether the entry had been correctly encrypted. So, with much excitement I set up the iMacs this morning, and…

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Some of which may help you to find out what it is you do have to do get it right, ie. to submit a valid entry. When you do so, please remember exactly what I am asking you to do. If you look at the previous post outlining the competition and its rules/criteria you will see that there is a fair amount of research and writing involved. All of it is interesting, I think, and will get you learning stuff that will set you on the way at least, to becoming the kind of bleeding edge tech-savvy geek described in Cory Doctorow’s riveting novel.

So, it’s still all to play for. No valid entries yet, but from the conversations I am having, some of you are finding out the kind of things which make it only a matter of time. Keep on it, and keep me updated. Remember, this has to be your own work, or you are only cheating yourselves.


Non Park Lane kids: if anybody is reading this who is still at school and wants to answer the questions and tell me how they feel about encryption and the issues involved in it even though they will not stand a chance of winning the book, please, please do so. I would love to hear all of your opinions and share them on the blog. Enter all the same. Tell me who you are and how you came across this blog, as well as answering the questions in the previous post. It’s all about dialogue and communication, and what has been great about the internet to date is that it is best when it is open and accessible. Let me know what you think whoever you are. Similarly then, questions and comments below.

Win Little Brother by Cory Doctorow! Part 2: the How.

Ok, so in that first post just now I described, I hope, why you might want to read Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Now, Doctorow himself would be the first to tell you that you can find the book, along with all of his others, for free on-line. These are not unauthorised copies on some peer-to-peer sharing website, these are creative commons licensed books which his fans have formatted into practically every e-book format anybody could want or make use of, and which are regularly released on the same day as the physical book. Why he does this he can describe better than I could myself, and it might be worth your time to find him doing just that and have a think about.

What both Doctorow and myself would add to this is, though, is that, however wonderful we might find technology, nothing has yet been invented which could compete with the printed word in a bound book. I would like to see you hold a well-earned copy in your hands, and this here is how you could go about it. Continue reading

Win Little Brother by Cory Doctorow! Part 1: the Why.

If you haven’t heard about Little Brother by Cory Doctorow then you will, I am sure, be hearing a lot about it over the coming weeks. Many of the books in the library are older children’s classics which I might have thought twice about before ordering them for our school. Well written they might certainly be, but I am far from convinced of their relevance to and appropriateness for a group of children living in the Czech Republic in the twenty first century (and having Czech and Russian and German and French as their first language). Little Brother is different. It may be set in the future but, like many works of science fiction and that subset of dystopias set in a near (or indeed, a not so near) future, it is unmistakably about now; about the lives we live now, and the way we live them. Most importantly, it is about being a kid now, growing up with technology; indeed, about a generation growing up with technology as the single most significant feature of their lives, touching everything from the culture (music, video and “film”,¹ even books and the written word) to a significant minority at least of their interactions with others.

But then I think it would be easy too, to exaggerate the differences between Little Brother and many of the older classics of children’s literature alluded to above. When Scott Westerfield, the author of Uglies, Pretties, and Specials, a series cataloguing another dystopian world known to some of you, describes Little Brother as “A rousing tale of techno-geek rebellion”, his words are in fact little different from those used to describe quality children’s literature for generations. Substitute a different modifier for that “techno-geek: and you could be talking about characters from so many children’s books which are more or less universally held to be classics that it would be a nonsense to name them.

The thing is that perhaps people have exaggerated the differences between Little Brother and other children’s books, and that they have done so in a way that has led to it being banned (or as good as banned) in some schools. Having read the book, I think this is a little silly, but I think it points to a common problem: people fear what they do not understand. It is one thing to have books taking as their subject rebellion against the school rules, even against the rules of society, as so many of our heroes of children’s literature (and literature of all kinds) have done over the years. It is something else, it seems to me, when the way they choose to do so involves something so little understood by many people my age, let alone older.

The way I personally look at things is that there is never reason to fear what you don’t understand. There is almost, in fact, reason to celebrate. If you know how to find information, how to distinguish what is useful from what is not – to extract the signal from the noise – then discovering something which you do not understand, but which you wish to understand, is as much a challenge and an opportunity as a stretch of white water after three days of rain to a kayaker, a crag to a climber.

I never really took to being given information pre-processed, just the same as I never took to processed food. I would rather cook a meal myself than have something served up to me that has been through countless factories and complex processes since it resembled anything like plant or animal life, and I would rather find out information for myself than have it placed in front of me with no clear sense of what has been done to it, by whom, and how and how far it has travelled to get to me. It is natural to me that if I don’t understand something, and it seems interesting or useful to me, I will dig around and ask questions until I find something out. Right or wrong, it seems to me that I have learned much more in my life through this process than I learned at school or even university. Everything I know about anything I know anything about – literature, nutrition, neuro-developmental disorders like autism and ADHD, computers, Czech, comes from this very fondness for, and curiosity about things I do not yet understand. I want you to leave school with that same drive.

Perhaps what I’m describing here could be described in simpler terms. “I am a geek” says much the same thing. And Cory Doctorow’s characters are geeks it seems to me,  far more than they are rebels. What’s more, the characters in the book, I think, would be geeks in any society, but are rebels only in the society he describes – a society which threatens them with loss of the freedoms we all wish to enjoy, a society which aims to know everything about them in the way Communist and fascist societies in the twentieth century aimed to do.

There are people who may be scared of you reading the book I will give away in this first competition, and I will argue that those people are scared of what they do not understand: what happens when children go into imaginary worlds for long periods of time. It is easy, I think, to exaggerate the differences between this and what happens when adults go into imaginary worlds for a long time. It is possible for adults to read books about private detectives who fight, drink, and gamble their way from one case to the next and still turn up to the office every day to sell real estate, and nobody ever seems to think this odd.

There is one thing I think will be next to impossible if you do pick up Little Brother and read and enjoy it from start to finish, and that is to be passive, to fail to ask questions, to sit around and accept everything you are told or read in the newspapers. That doesn’t make you into a rebel, or an anti-authoritarian, or I don’t even know what else is suspected of those kids who might be corrupted by a book. It makes you into a democratic citizen as defined by Vacláv Havel, T. G. Masaryk, or anybody else who has thought about what an open, free society needs and involves. It makes you into somebody who won’t be taken for an idiot. Specifically, when we think about Little Brother in particular, it makes you into somebody more likely to use technology than be used by it.

Believe me, that is something you are going to need to be.

That now is why you might choose to read this book. All that leaves is how you could win yourself a physical copy in the first Park Lane Library competition (open to Park Lane students, of course, from year 6 up). You’re going to have to geek yourselves up some, but I think you’re good for it.

¹ I use the scare quotes here because film is very rarely now shot on film. It begins and usually ends its life as digital video.

Reading Habits #1 (long read)

I haven’t posted for a long while. I part that’s because I have been getting very busy getting more involved with the computers at school and helping out with the school’s use of social media. There is, however, something that I have been meaning to post on for some time and which came up yesterday in a conversation between our head of primary, Mr Jay, and a secondary student and since I’ve laminated just about as many books as I can stomach today and still have a free slot, I would like to share it with you. Continue reading

True or False: Major Tom has to Take Vitamin Pills

The above is a question from a new English textbook I found today. The more retro-minded amongst you will perhaps recognise a reference to the lyrics of a pop song. The song is narrative-driven, which means it is a story song. I love music, and I am a stickler for good lyrics. This is in some ways problematic, in the sense that it means I hate many songs with a burning passion. Many writers of pop songs see lyrics as secondary, or, if not that, then they certainly commit violence against words and the English language to force them to fit the rhythm of a song. What this means is that songs can be great for language learning, but should not be taken as “gospel”, meaning that you should not believe them at all times to be examples of good grammar and idiomatic (natural) speech. When I used to teach English as a foreign language, I always used to have a mental list of such songs which I thought about putting into a blog, explaining the language used and abused in the songs, and how it ought to look. Very occasionally, I am able to see examples of such unnatural English as part of the charm of the song. Mostly though, I despise them, and try to escape from shops, restaurants, cafes and the like that play them, clasping my ears in pain.

Stories in songs suffer a similar fate, taking unlikely turns at times simply because of the unreasonable demands of an ill-chosen rhyme-scheme. (Rhyme has to be used very well in poetry and in song, for it to feel natural and unforced.)

When a good song tells a good story though, it is an example of a rare mastery, and has a power for those of us who love both music and narrative that is perhaps rare even from film and the written word. Just think how many times you may hear a song versus the number of times you might watch even a film you love, or read a story that moved you deeply.