Let's Read The Overton Window pt. 14: *Hacker Voice*

It's chapter 26 and yep, we're still hanging with Kearns and Danny.

By the way, I'm referring to Kearns by his surname because that's what the book does, but it flip-flops randomly with Danny. In some chapters he's Danny, in others he's Bailey.

Who's ready for some stuff that doesn't make sense?

The plan, plainly agreed upon, had been to leave the dummy bomb with their five co-conspirators in exchange for twenty thousand dollars the men had agreed to pay to cover Kearns’s expenses.

So, hang on, their offer to the militia was "pay us twenty grand and we'll let you blow yourselves up on a suicide mission that we could have carried out on our own"? Danny and Kearns are supposed to be true believers, why would they need payment? What "expenses" was the militia covering?

Tomorrow the men would make the eight-hour drive to Las Vegas and pull up to the target address. Instead of achieving martyrdom they’d be met by a SWAT team and a dragnet of federal agents who’d be waiting there to arrest them.

Why don't the police just arrest them now? They just took possession of a nuclear bomb, that has to be grounds to swoop in and nab them.

Obviously, the reason is that the bomb is real and Kearns and his handlers want the plan to go through, but Danny still thinks he's part of a sting operation. Wouldn't he get suspicious about letting them drive all the way to Las Vegas for no reason?

None of these guys seemed the type to allow themselves to be taken alive, so FEMA would be running a local terror drill at the same time. With the area evacuated for blocks around there’d be less chance of any innocent bystanders being caught in the anticipated cross fire.

You know the police can just clear areas themselves, right? You don't need FEMA to make up a pretext. And wouldn't it tip the bombers off if they drove into downtown Las Vegas and it was completely devoid of people?

(This detail about FEMA is in there to give the whole situation a whiff of real-life conspiracy theories, in case you didn’t pick up on that. Beck apparently doesn’t go in for the whole FEMA concentration camps thing, but he’s evidently willing to throw that audience a dog whistle).

But anyway, the would-be bombers didn't actually go through with the deal because they didn't have the money. Now Kearns is concerned that they might have suspected that something was up. Additionally, the fifth guy who didn't show up is the group's leader, which means the entire meeting might have really been to scope Kearns and Danny out. For some reason Kearns is recounting all of this to Danny as they drive away, even though Danny was there when it happened.

Danny asks Kearns why he's not retired by now and

“It’s a long story.”

“Well,” Danny said, “it’s a long drive.”

Dear god, please do not bother giving us Kearns' backstory. 

Stuart Kearns, it turned out, had been in quite a different position a decade before.


I'm not going to summarize all of this, except for the part where Kearns worked with John O'Neill, a real-life FBI counter-terrorism agent who spent years warning about the possibility of a major terrorist attack orchestrated by Al Qaeda, then was killed during 9/11 in a tragic twist of fate. The fact that O'Neill's warnings were brushed aside received a lot of scrutiny in the aftermath, and he's been featured in a lot of media about the event (including The Looming Tower, as well as the drama series it was adapted into).

With this, Beck's habit of weaving his trashy conspiracy plot around real-life events is crossing the line into outright distasteful territory, since it's hard not to see O'Neill's inclusion in the backstory as a veiled wink at 9/11 truthers. In reality, the dude's life and death are nothing but an example of someone getting dicked over by bureaucracy and then paying for their devotion with their life (O'Neill took a job as the World Trade Centre's head of security three weeks before 9/11 due to his study of the 1993 bombing there; it's hard not to interpret the career change as an attempt to prevent another attack that came tragically too late).

Anyway, Danny asks Kearns to pull over so he can visit a brothel. It turns out he's not quite as much of a rube as he came across earlier, as he pays one of the workers to borrow her phone and then sends a text to Molly warning her and the Trapper Keepers to stay away from Las Vegas:

molly -
spread the word --- stay away from las vegas monday
FBI sting op --> * exigent *
be safe

On one hand, this is a welcome development because, as I said multiple times earlier, the whole deal with Kearns is super flimsy and Danny would need to be completely stupid not to see through it.

On the other hand, it would be nice to know what exactly gave the game away. And you might be wondering how Danny knows what EXIGENT is. Here's how:

He knew the code name of this operation he’d become involved in; he’d seen it on the paperwork they’d made him sign upon his release from jail.

Why would the conspirators put that on paperwork? So it will hold up in court later? They're planning on turning the country into an autocracy, and I'm pretty sure they're going to shoot Danny and dump him in a landfill somewhere once EXIGENT goes off. It's not going to matter what the damn paperwork said. I'm surprised they even bothered with paperwork at all, considering the same police force pulled off a false flag operation and made zero attempt to hide it.

The actual reason is that Danny needs to know what Exigent is so that Molly can connect the dots between it and the nuclear switcheroo, and apparently the writers couldn't think of any better way for Danny to get that information. 

Writing tip: when you reach an impasse like this, the correct course of action is to pull the loose thread and identify where in the story the problem actually originates; in this case, it's Danny being segmented off into his own little plot-line that has nothing to do with Noah and Molly, until suddenly it does. Fixing this problem would have required re-writing and re-structuring a whole bunch of the plot, which is why Beck and co just used a lazy band-aid. Your readers will always notice this.

What's happening with our main man Noah?

A small fragment of his awareness saw everything clearly from a mute corner of his mind, but that part had given up trying to rouse the rest of him. Noah still lay where Molly had left him, not exactly asleep but a long way from consciousness.

Noah is Hollywood Drugged, where he has exactly enough consciousness to accurately take in information about what's going on around him, but not enough to move or open his eyes. Eventually, he wakes up out of his fugue state to see people with guns rushing into the Trapper Keeper safehouse. Then a doctor injects him with wake-up juice, and he's fine.

Monday, about noon; he’d been dead to the world for forty hours.

In that case, he'd probably be both really thirsty and have to pee super bad.

The woman looked at him, and her demeanor had noticeably chilled. It’s a thing with some doctors; the instant you’re well they don’t see much use in courtesy.

“Your father wants to see you,” she said.

I'm really curious what the purpose of drugging Noah was. Maybe we'll find out in chapter 29?

“What time zone is Nevada?” Danny called out toward the trailer’s kitchenette.


I really dislike these two characters. Neither of them are interesting or endearing (the Noah chapters at least have Molly's earnestness to offset Noah's lack of a personality) and any scenes featuring them feel too slow and inconsequential.

“What time zone is Nevada?” Danny called out toward the trailer’s kitchenette. His watch was a Rolex knockoff and it wasn’t easy to reset, so whenever he was traveling he always put off messing with it for as long as possible.

Hey look, mobile phones have vanished again. This part must have been written in the 90s.

Between the two of them Danny was more capable on the computer, so it had been entrusted to him to plan the route to this remote location through a visit to MapQuest.

There's no way the first draft of this was written before 2005.

Danny and Kearns are rushing to get on the road so they can meet the terrorist bros again, this time to hand over the bomb for real. Danny dashes out another quick message to Molly, some other Trapper Keepers, and the "staff" that he apparently employs (I have no idea if Danny owning some sort of company or business was ever touched on before).

So, here's a thought. This message, which he just emailed to a handful of people, has the exact co-ordinates of the place he's meeting the terrorists at, in case they kill him and someone has to find his body. How does he know none of them are going to go to the police, who will then go to the meeting place themselves and set up a sting operation?

In fact, why is Danny not sending this to the police? He think it's possible enough that Kearns is pulling a fast one on him and the bomb plot will really happen to warn Molly and several other people to stay away from Las Vegas, so why isn't he alerting the authorities? 

This is another case where it feels like the characters are reading the book as it's happening. We know that the government is orchestrating all of this, but Danny doesn't know that. From his perspective, it's entirely possible that Kearns is a rogue agent and he could stop the whole thing with a single email. As it is, he comes across as breath-takingly uncaring, as he's apparently fine with the entire population of Las Vegas getting blown to pieces as long as no one he cares about is hurt.

The message was safely gone, the browser history deleted, and the map to the meeting location printed out and ready by the time Kearns returned to the room.

Yes, once you delete your browser history there's no possible way for someone to figure out what you were doing on their computer. Danny is a real tech wiz.

Before they leave, Kearns lets his cat out and fills up a dish of water for it. Danny takes this as an ominous sign, indicating that Kearns expects to be gone a lot longer than he's letting on.

Except it... isn't, really. The drive to the meeting place will take eight hours. Even if they drove straight there, handed over the bomb and then drove straight back without stopping for any breaks, that's a sixteen hour round trip. Since that would be ridiculous, they're probably planning on staying somewhere overnight and taking at least one stop for meals both ways.

Which actually makes Kearns' behaviour indicate the opposite, that he's planning on being back much quicker than Danny thinks. Even if you assume the cat can hunt its own food or scavenge somewhere, you'd want to leave it much more water (they're in Nevada, remember). I wouldn't leave my cat alone that long without multiple water sources in Ireland, where there's no chance it's going to evaporate.

Then we're back with Noah, who's escorted to the office and up to his father's suite. For some reason he placidly goes along with this, even though these are apparently just hired goons on his dad's payroll and therefore they're illegally kidnapping him. 

No, really. The doctor from the last Noah chapter said "your father wants to see you" and the book treats it like a legally-binding arrest. Apparently Arthur Gardner turned into the Emperor from Star Wars at some point in the last twenty-five chapters, and he can now send his personal army to kick down doors and abduct people from private property with impunity.

Arthur and his security guy reveal that Molly was the one who leaked the conspiracy document from back near the start of the book. They know this because she apparently did it from inside the company's own network, on company-owned hardware. Now, this is clearly stupid, but as someone who works in IT security, it's also realistic. A lot of people do in fact do things like this.

There was her log-in and some fairly cagey attempts to hide the suspicious actions through a proxy mask

I really, really want to know what Glenn Beck thinks a "proxy mask" is.

along with the e-mail message in question, addressed to a list of a few hundred recipients outside the company firewall.

...Well, yeah. If they were inside the company firewall, that would mean she was emailing them to internal addresses, which would be pointless. I'm guessing Beck also doesn't know what a firewall is.

(A tip for fellow writers: despite how cool they sound, firewalls are not magical anti-hacker force-fields. They're actually pretty basic as security tools go; you can secure a network a lot better with good network architecture and intrusion detection software. They're still important to have just to catch basic threats and employees getting up to shady things, but I wince every time someone on a TV show yells "HOW DID THEY GET THROUGH THE FIREWALL???" as though that should be impossible).

Despite just saying it's realistic, I'm wondering how exactly Molly pulled this off. She clearly had access to a digital copy of the document, because she sent it in the emails as an attachment, so why not copy it to a USB key and then send the emails from a secure location later?

Alright, maybe Evil PR Firm Whose Name I've Forgotten has all their computers write-blocked (which they should, since they're handling sensitive client data). There's ways around that, but they'd leave traces that would be obvious to someone investigating the leak. So how about: encrypt the document, email it to a burner address, have someone else halfway across the country copy it to a USB stick, and then they decrypt it and send out the email blast from a computer with no connection to EPRWNIF or Molly. Sending an encrypted file outside the company network would still look sketchy as hell, but they couldn't actually prove it was the conspiracy document.

Of course, all of this is redundant since this revelation opens up a huge plot hole: why did EPRWNIF have the document in the first place? They only found out about its existence because it was leaked, so why did they have it before it got leaked? Was the DHS their client already, and they sent them a bunch of secret data to keep on file, just because? The book seems to imply that this is the case, but why would they do that?

Arthur himself even states--correctly--that a civilian company is the most obvious point of attack for anyone looking to get at government data, which is precisely why the Trapper Keepers targeted them. The writers knew this didn't make sense, and they even call attention to it, but they didn't bother to fix it.

(I can come up with some ways around this. Maybe you could say that Arthur bullied his government contacts into handing over sensitive data, which he planned to keep in case he ever needed to blackmail them later; that sounds like the sort of thing he'd do, and it would add a neat twist where his own hubris gets the better of him).

Arthur's security guy explains that Noah was deliberately targeted by the Trapper Keepers; Molly even altered her appearance to match his specific preferences in fashion and women (let the record show that I called this several posts ago). All of this was a precisely-orchestrated plot to get Molly into the company's inner sanctum.

Except that's stupid, because there's no fucking way they could have known Noah was going to do any of the exact, specific things that he did. Here's the chain of events that brought Noah to this position:

  1. He saw Molly and decided she was hot

  2. He saw the flyer for the Trapper Keeper meeting

  3. After the conspiracy briefing, Noah decided to go to the meeting to settle a personal beef with Molly

  4. He ended up falling for her instead

  5. She asked him to bring her into Arthur's private office suite, and he accepted

Any one of those steps could easily have failed. If Noah hadn't noticed Molly, or hadn't bothered reading the flyer, or hadn't decided to go to the meeting for idiosyncratic personal reasons that no one could have possibly predicted, or had decided not to jeopardize his career for a woman he just met, the plan would have been down the drain. Noah deciding to go to the meeting is the biggest failure point here, because if the Trapper Keepers really did all of this research on him, they would have known that their ideology wouldn't be appealing to him. In fact, there's a very good chance that Molly's association with the movement would sour Noah on her, ruining the whole plan.

And all of this had to happen when and how it did, because Molly had already leaked the document before Noah ever saw her. That meant there was an extremely brief window of time for her to flip Noah before EPRWNIF realized what she had done (she did it on Thursday; they caught on sometime between Friday evening and the end of the weekend).

You know what would have been a better way? Just ask Noah for his password, then sniff around in EPRWNIF's servers at her leisure.

People always think of "hacking" as pulling off sophisticated network intrusion, but social engineering techniques like phishing are by far the easiest and most reliable way of gaining access to another entity's data. There are consulting firms that do nothing but test their client's security by sending fake phishing emails; they routinely trick employees into clicking shady links or giving up their passwords at an alarmingly high rate. Audits of this kind aimed specifically at the "C-suite" of top-level executives tend to be the most successful--which means that yes, malicious hackers have definitely tricked CEOs into giving up their login information. It probably happens dozens of times a day, if not more.

(Another fun test is to leave unmarked USB drives around a company car park. When plugged into a network-connected PC, they contact a server and send information on who the computer belongs to and the time it was plugged in. This frequently results in employees finding the sticks and immediately jamming them into their workstations to see what's on them).

His Facebook profile, his Twitter history, his full set of responses from a variety of questionnaires at his online dating sites, the rambling, soul-searching posts from his personal blog,

Man, I want to see those blog posts.

February 24th, 2009

Mood:  :|

Dear internet diary, today I sat in on a meeting where my dad talked for three hours about a plan to put mind-control chemicals in drinking water. I'm really not sure what that was about. Maybe he wants to install water fountains around the office? I think "literally put mind control chemicals into municipal drinking water to turn people into unthinking puppets like a super-villain" means "install drinking fountains". Yeah, that must be it. Maybe we can get some windows put in next.

Then he sent me to the old abandoned meat-packing plant on the edge of town to pick up several long, heavy objects wrapped in cloth shrouds. They felt sort of like mannequins. Although I'm not sure why all that blood came out of them when I shoved them into the wood-chipper. Weird. 

Current Music: Sine Wave on 24-hour loop

Noah had seen the same sort of digital thievery performed many, many times in the course of corporate espionage and political dirty-tricks campaigns.

You know that shit is all illegal, right? Noah (and by extension the book itself) doesn't seem to realize that Arthur is breaking the law here, just like earlier it didn't seem to matter that Arthur was abducting his son at gunpoint. 

The chapter then proceeds with a long, dreary description of all the exact ways Molly fucked Noah over. 

Then Noah brought her to the office and showed her that presentation—and in doing so he also showed her how to access those protected files when she returned with her accomplices to try to steal them that same night.

Did he, though? Did he show her his password? Because without that, she's not getting to the files. 

At her apartment she’d evidently given him some kind of short-acting drug to knock him out, and then they’d applied a fentanyl patch in hopes of keeping him unconscious for the duration of the weekend.

I don't think fentanyl patches actually knock you out for forty hours. I know it was combined with something else, but even still.

“We think they wanted you to be found there with that stuff, so you’d be implicated as an accomplice in this whole thing.

There's no way this would work. Noah and Molly have to have been seen together dozens of times on security cameras, and EPRWNIF would have a record of someone accessing the building with Noah's keycard while he was in the Trapper Keeper base. And how would they explain him being found unconscious? He tried to steal classified information from his workplace, retreated to his radical terrorist lair, and then drugged himself? 

All of this seems like a plot twist that was invented on the spot during the first draft, without anyone going back to put in any of the preperation or lead-up required to make the plot twist make sense. So instead we’re just getting this entire chapter that exists solely to try to massage the previous story so that the twist will make sense.

It’s not the worst example of this phenomenon I’ve ever seen (that honour goes to Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, which concludes with a gigantic multi-page monologue explaining the villain’s absurdly over-complicated plan and the accompanying plot twists required to ram it into the narrative), but it’s still pretty blatent. As we get further into the book, the story is getting shakier and less coherent.

A quick programming note before we wrap up.

The next post is going to take a while to come out, because I had to write two versions. The book gets into some very heavy topics--as in, child abuse and rape kinds of heavy--and I'm responding with lengthy rebuttals that, by necessity, are majorly not safe for people who want to avoid those topics.

I initially tried to divide things up with content warnings, but the post became too unwieldy. So, instead I'm putting out two versions; both contain the exact same plot summary and opinions on Beck's general political views, but only one of them talks about the bleaker subject matter at length. Both will be going up simultaneously, and the potentially triggering one will be clearly identified. I know this is kind of a strange approach, but I felt like it was the only way to let readers make an informed choice over whether they want to read distressing content on the blog.

Just to assuage anyone's concerns: you're not going to miss out on anything important by going for the "lighter" version. I'll be making the exact same points and covering the same parts of the book, just with extra discussion of difficult topics left out. 

Unfortunately, due to my health problems this level of work is a major strain, so as stated, it’ll be a while before the posts actually go live.