Total Drek

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Friday, December 09, 2011

The Overton Window: Chapter 43

Welcome back one and all to our ongoing series on The Overton Window, the book that makes the founding fathers wish that they had somehow been even more clear. Last time Noah got all pouty because Molly did what Molly has been doing since this stupid book began. What happens this week? We return to Stuart and Danny who have managed to trap themselves in the back of a terrorist van in the middle of the desert. So, yeah, things are going as per normal for Stu.

As I mentioned I am once again selecting a comment of the week, and this week that "honor" goes to Mister Troll for his prophetic vision:

Shift-option eight. Glad to help.

So all the characters are gathering near a nuclear weapon? Dare we hope?

So, first off, thanks for the educational tip about the ° symbol. Second, however: yes, you should dare to hope because without hope, what is life? Thanks for playing, Mister Troll, and keep it up, everyone! We're nearly to the end.

And, with that, let's begin! As always, page/line numbers are in bold, quotes from the book are in block quotes, my commentary is in regular print, and you can navigate the whole series with the provided tag. My footnotes use the traditional star system (e.g. *, **, etc) while references included in the Afterword to the book are noted with numbered parenthetical tags (e.g. (1), (2), etc.). Poof!

Dramatis Personae: In an order determined by a twenty sided die.

Eli Churchill: Former janitor at a volcano lair. Fan of remote telephone booths. Shot in the head by parties unknown.

Beverly Emerson: Mysterious correspondent of Eli Churchill's. Molly's Mom. Injected with weed killer by parties unknown blisteringly obvious to everyone.

Noah Gardener: 28 years old. Sets the dating bar "medium-high". Works Vice president at a PR firm. Went to NYU. Is "witty". Frequently forgets where he's going and why. Not good at talking to women. Not really inclined to help out cab drivers. Low tolerance for alcohol. Lost his mother when he was young. Fond of chicken and waffles. Rich as shit. Views himself as a sexual panther. Likes bacon. Considers himself to be good at word games. Wants to bang his mom.

Molly "Hottie McPretty" Ross: Dresses like a hippie, but not really. Looks like a free spirit. Perfectly captures the essence of womanhood. Auburn hair. Green eyes. Pale skin. Has a tattoo on her chest. Wears a silver cross around her neck. Lost her father when she was young. Impressed by fancy cars. Cocktease. Possibly suffering from bipolar disorder. Looks just like Noah's mom. Also looks just like Natalie Portman.

Arthur Gardner Noah's father. Owner of Doyle & Merchant. Megalomaniac. Surprisingly vigorous for a 74 year old man.

Khaled: Lebanese cab driver. Sold out by Noah Gardener.

Hollis: Friend of Molly Ross. Very polite. From the country. May be a Yeti.

Danny Bailey: Some kind of YouTube celebrity. Former lover of Molly Ross. Kind of a dickhead. Loves conspiracy theories and incoherent speeches. Sodomized by inmates following the rally. Once dressed up as Colonel Sanders to infiltrate the United Nations. May be afraid of cats. Fast draw, terrible shot.

Charlie Nelan: Gardner family lawyer. Silver hair. Impeccably dressed. Looks awesome. Has some sort of weird relationship with GQ. May have the ability to sense when Noah's in trouble using some sort of clairvoyance. Possible kleptomaniac.

Stuart Kearns: FBI agent. Works on homeland security matters. Kinda old and wrinkly. Not particularly trusting. Lives in a double-wide trailer. Sixty-three years old.

Mr. Puddles: AKA Gray Death. AKA Ninja Cat. Stuart's cat. Large. Dangerous looking. Possibly plotting his demise.

Tiffany: A stripper at the Pussycat Ranch. Thinks Danny is awesome.

Ellen Davenport: Old friend of Noah's. Second-year neurology resident at Mt. Sinai. Doesn't appear to need sleep or have good taste in her associates.


Chapter 43: In which Danny and Stuart die. Finally.

Recommended Mood Music:

Page 262, Line 1-5:
"Nine-one-one, this call is recorded, what's your emergency?"

Wherever they were going, the ride was awfully rough. Danny was holding on tight to a cargo strap near the open door at the rear of the moving truck, the only place in the metal compartment with a signal solid enough to make a call on Kearns's satellite phone.

I'll admit it- this is the closest to heroic that Danny has ever, and will ever, get. So, how impressed do you think we'll be with his follow through? Well, he tells the operator he's in the desert with an FBI special agent and a possible nuclear weapon. They, logically enough, ask for his location, and then things get silly. Well, sillier.

Page 262, Line 11-14:
"Listen, I know what you people can do. You already know where I am better than I do, you know whose phone I'm calling from, you know the route I'm on, and in about ten seconds you'll be sure who I am because you'll have verified my voiceprint, so stop wasting my time."

Right- he does okay at first, and then wanders off into paranoia land. Yes, the U.S. government has some neat technology, but is Danny conceited enough to believe that he's on a "surveil at all costs" list? Does he think that local 9-1-1 systems are thoroughly integrated into the national intelligence system? Does he think the Masons run the world? Just at the moment, it seems like the answer to all these questions is "yes" and, painfully enough, the authors appear to agree.

Page 262, Line 15-17:
Some odd noise broke onto the line for a time; not interference, but a series of electronic clicks, tones, and dropouts.

"Okay, good deal, is everybody on now? Everybody listening?"

On the one hand, I kind of wish that the U.S. intelligence community were this freaking efficient. We'd all be a lot safer from al Qaeda. On the other hand, I'm glad it isn't, since that helps with the whole civil liberties thing. And on the gripping hand, I'm suddenly wondering if Glenn Beck is the sort of guy who checks his soap for listening devices. Because they could be anywhere, you know. Anyway, Danny puts the phone down near the open door so that the authorities can track it (track a SATELLITE phone, mind you, which is not an easy task) and checks on Stuart, who has been shot in the leg and is examining the nondescript bundle they saw in the truck.

Page 263, Line 11-19
Agent Kearns had said that after these last few years of working this operation undercover- all the while doing his best to appear to be a raving militant agitator who'd turned against his government and was openly calling for a violent revolution- he really had only one remaining contact in the FBI. His frightening online persona was well-known to tens of thousands of fringe group wackos and law enforcement personnel alike, but only one person alive could have credibly testified that Stuart Kearns was actually a loyal American doing his duty to protect and defend the United States. And here was that person, dead.

Okay, so, is anyone surprised by this turn of events? Anyone at all? Because they basically foreshadowed this with a neon sign. And I mean a big neon sign. Like, if you built a neon sign that covered the near hemisphere of the freaking moon. But, hey, whatever, act surprised and horrified and then lets get on with our business. In this case our business is watching Danny draw Stuart's attention to the next stop on the tour- the torpedo shaped doohickey they're sharing the truck with.

Page 264, Line 1-4:
"This looks like an old Mark 8 atomic bomb," Kearns said, "from the early 1950s." He pulled the light closer and ran his hands over the surface, stopping at a series of seals and stickers that carried dates and the initials of inspectors. "It's been maintained all these years."

We're going to geek out a little bit about nuclear weapons in this chapter, so we may as well get started now. The venerable Mark 8 is a gun-style bunker-buster type weapon. It's heavy as fuck, built like a tank, and has a yield of between 25 and 30 kilotons. By comparison, it's progenitor, the Mark 1 "Little Boy" atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of 13-18 kilotons. All that being said, the Mark 8 is in a size class that would currently place it essentially in the tactical rather than strategic range. So, for example, the B83 is currently the most powerful nuclear weapon in the U.S. inventory, and it clocks in at 1.2 megatons. By comparison, the Mark 8 is a measly 0.03 megatons (Seriously! It's just the metric system but, if that scares you, here's a handy calculator). So, this isn't what you'd call a big nuclear weapon, although in comparison to most conventional weaponry, there's really no such thing as a small one. Anyway, just humor me, as this will become relevant in a bit. Leaving all the geekery aside, however, there's the additional question: if the terrorists already had one nuclear weapon, why did they bring it to the meeting with the guys who were going to sell them a second?

Page 264, Line 5-10:
"So this is a live one, then?" [Danny asked]

"Sure looks that way to me." A line of heavy metal conduit ran from the rear of the thing and Kearns followed it with a finger, pointing. The tubing went across the floor and through the wall to the driver's compartment. "And it looks like they've jury-rigged it to be set off from the front seat."

Now, we should keep in mind that when we were introduced to Kearns' fake bomb way back in the day (Page 172, Line 1-11) we were specifically told that it was made to look legitimate. Given the involvement of Kearns' supervisor in all this, we have no real reason not to suspect this one of being a mock up. Except, of course, that we're in a crappy novel. I also find it suspicious that the terrorists would have embedded the control cable in a conduit, almost as though they expected to have hostile, yet unarmed, parties in the back at this point. Most curious. Anyway, Danny states that the whole thing is a setup and Kearns asks why.

Page 264, Line 16-18:
"It's like I told you before. Whoever's behind this needed a patsy for a false-flag domestic attack, Stuart, and that's you. And they needed to make my people the enemy, and that's why I'm here."

Never mind that, arguably, his "people" WERE the enemy, given that his fan club is trying to nuke Las Vegas. I mean, yeah, maybe they had help, but...

Page 264, Line 26-32:
"Well, whoever's behind this, we've screwed up their plans for now." [Kearns said]

"But not for much longer. This guy's driving somewhere like he means to get where he's going, but if he calms down long enough to stop and come back here to check his load, we're toast. We're unarmed, and he'll just stand back and shoot us like fish in a barrel. Then he'll go to Vegas tonight and do what he's going to do. We can't wait for him to do that."

Kearns looked up at him. "So what do we do?"

This bit is interesting to me because, while we knew that Danny had shot his gun dry, we did not know that Kearns was dry as well. Oh, if you count shots in the relevant chapter (Chapter 41) you can find explicit mention of five and then an implied sixth. We don't know for sure what weapon Kearns was carrying- Danny referred to it as a .38, which is a type of round as opposed to a firearm- but the authors probably meant for us to assume a snub nosed revolver. Thing is, I find it odd that Kearns wouldn't have at least one speed loader on him. Additionally, we're assuming the terrorist who jumped in the truck and left in a panic is armed, which seems like a risky assumption. Finally, you've gotta love that somehow Danny is better in a crisis situation than the FBI agent. What the hell?

Page 265, Line 3:
"I've got an idea," Danny said, "but I don't know if you'll like it."

Oh, I strongly suspect nobody will like it, Danny. Really! Anyway, they go over to where their fake bomb is, sit down, and take out its arming keys.

Page 265, Line 10-11:
If one of these bombs was real, then it stood to reason that they both were real. And there was really only one way to find out.

Okay, we're abusing the term "reason" here. First, we don't know that either bomb is real. Second, the reality of one device doesn't in any way imply the reality of the other. And third, if you were lucky enough to come into possession of TWO nuclear weapons, why would you have both of them in the truck when one of them blew up? Nukes ain't like dynamite- setting off one doesn't set off the other, it just blows the other the hell up. Yes, you COULD set them off simultaneously, but I don't think that would be very useful and, frankly, it'd be a difficult engineering challenge to make sure they were triggered in just the right order and fast enough to ensure that each of them completed their operational cycles and exploded before the detonation from the other arrived. So, if you managed to get two live weapons, you'd send one off to blow up Vegas NOW and save the OTHER one for later. And don't tell me the terrorists were planning to do that- they would have brought another vehicle with them. So, in short, we have good reason to think that the terrorists, at least, only believed one weapon to be genuine. But, whatever, here we go. They activate the bomb, set it's GPS coordinates for three miles down the road, and arm it. So, in other words, when the truck travels three more miles, boom! Assuming that this thing is real, anyway. Keep that in mind- it'll be important later. Anyway, Kearns offers Danny a cigarette, Danny declines, and then reminds Stu of his oath to protect and defend the constitution, basically pointing out that he's about to do just that. Stuart likes that idea and then asks Danny how he feels about his imminent conversion to incandescent gas.

Page 266, Line 15-21:
"Me? Oh, this is the perfect way for me to go out, really. The more I think about it, the more I realize I must have outstayed my welcome in my own movement. I take that back; it's not even mine anymore. If guys like these can agree with anything I say, then I've been saying something wrong. And you know what, Stuart? A long time ago I pledged my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor to this country, and now I get to give all three of them at once."

Man, this is just the most trite heroic death scene ever. And shit, I have SEEN Starship Troopers so I know what I'm talking about.* Anyway, after discussing how someday some crazy conspiracy theorist like Danny will piece together the truth the boys share a final, tender moment.

Page 266, Line 29-30:
He reached out a hand and Danny Bailey took it in a firm clasp of solidarity, and just a moment later, they were gone.

Aaaaaand that's it: Danny and Stuart have been blown up in an atomic explosion. Now, lay aside the tremendous relief you feel at that notion and ask yourself something: why the hell didn't they jump out of the truck? See, nuclear weapons are powerful, yes, but they're not supernatural death gods, they have limits, and in this case the limits are pronounced. Given the description in the book, Danny and Stu most likely set off a W54 warhead in an SADM configuration. That particular device has a variable yield that tops out at one kiloton. That's ONE kiloton, or 0.001 megatons. That's pretty small for a nuke, and it forces us to ask: if they had exited the truck when they were still three miles from ground zero, would they have survived? Well, when it comes to nukes, one of three things can kill you. First, there's the ionizing radiation, which can turn you into jelly from the inside out. To kill you, though, you have to be mighty close to the blast. Second, there's the thermal pulse- the blast applies so much heat to you so quickly you burn up, either immediately or are burned so severely you can't survive long. Finally, there's mechanical force- the compression or blast wave, which can kill you directly if the overpressure is high enough, or can riddle you with shrapnel. Given that we're out in the middle of fuckall nowhere, we're going to ignore the possible dangers of mass fire (although if you're curious, Lynn Eden has a wonderful book on the subject). So how bad would these effects be from a one kiloton blast at three miles? Well, using a handy nuke effects calculator the answer is: not very. You'd see third degree burns out to about 700 meters, near total fatalities from the compression wave to 300 meters and widespread destruction from same to about 740 meters, and lethal ionizing radiation to 840 meters. Given that a mile is about 1600 meters, our "heroes" could have set their bomb and been about 4800 meters from ground zero when the weapon detonated, well outside any of the lethal radii. Hell, if they stayed down after they stopped rolling they would almost certainly have been below the horizon** and therefore shielded from the blast effects that require direct line of sight (i.e. the radiation and the thermal pulse). Yes, they would have been banged up, but if they survived the fall they would have lived. But what if it wasn't a W54? Well, it was, because nukes are freaking heavy, and they couldn't have lifted the damn thing otherwise, but fine, let's assume that the weapon they set off was actually equivalent to a Mark 8, meaning 30 kilotons (i.e. 0.03 megatons). At that yield, the third degree burns would extend to 2.8 kilometers, near total fatalities from the compression wave to 860 meters with widespread destruction from same to 2.3 kilometers, and lethal ionizing radiation to 1.6 kilometers. However, a mile equals about 1.6 kilometers, so our "heroes" would have been around 4.8 kilometers from the center of the blast. In this case, yeah, they'd almost certainly get hurt, but again they'd probably survive just fine. Now, Stuart is a trained FBI agent and knows his nukes well enough to identify a Mark 8 by sight, so how the hell did he not know that they could have screwed up the conspiracy's plans even more by setting the bomb, hopping out, surviving, and then telling their story afterward? Either because he's an idiot or the authors are lazy, and I leave it to you to decide which is more likely.

But, likely or not, that does bring us to the end of our chapter. Come back next time when we rejoin Noah, who throws a hissy fit. Good times, eh?

* I actually really like the book, but the movie is just awful.

** This, as a side note, is the real reason for the old "duck and cover" drills: by getting down you get below the horizon and may miss some of the blast effects. It's also the reason for an air burst detonation.



Blogger Mister Troll said...

My elation at my comment victory is somewhat moderated by assessment of last week's complete lack of competition. Still... Score!

Impressive analysis on the nuclear weapon effects. I was a bit miffed you listed ionizing radiation as the "first" thing to worry about. (pet peeve alert). The rule of thumb is that if you can survive the blast, the radiation won't be a big problem. (with some exceptions)

But the bigger problem in the analysis is that the calculator assumes detonation at a optimal height. I don't know how the effects change for a ground-level detonation, or even if the "rule" applies to tactical nukes.

Anyway, just my pet peeve: it's not the radiation...

(You can imagine how fun it is to wind me up at parties about this.)

Friday, December 09, 2011 6:21:00 PM  
Blogger Mister Troll said...

Also, dammit: we got rid of both nukes, so what's left to hope for Noah? This was only a semi-satisfying chapter.

Friday, December 09, 2011 6:23:00 PM  
Blogger Mister Troll said...

Oh, and are you sure about that duck-and-cover thing? I understood it to be related to protection from flying bits of ex-building material.

Friday, December 09, 2011 6:30:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey Mister Troll:

You're absolutely right about the relative unimportance of ionizing radiation. I was trying to indicate that when, after describing it, I commented that you'd have to be awfully close to the blast for that to be what killed you. The problem is just that I didn't list the three mechanisms of flaming hot death in any particular order, but I can see where it might read like I meant it that way. Rest assured that I was not deliberately treading upon your peeve and it was just ambiguity in my language.

The optimum burst height issue is more serious, I agree, but I didn't worry about it that much because it essentially works against my case. Since I'm saying that they could have lived, conceding an optimum burst height- which they definitely didn't have- produces a more stringent counter-argument. Granted, as the calculator observes, a ground burst can produce a larger fireball, but if you're close enough to the weapon for that to be a factor, you're pretty much screwed anyway.

As for duck-and-cover, I suspect it's a case of same process, different particles. In both cases by getting down you increase your chances of not being in front of something that will kill you dead. The relative contributions of protection from shrapnel vs. protection from photons probably depend a lot on terrain.

Friday, December 09, 2011 6:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the authors are more subtle than we think! By making us read this garbage, they are simulating how one would feel in the middle of a nuclear attack, i.e. brain melting, eyes burning, the urge to kill rising, et al.

That said, now that those two douchewagons are dead, WHO is going to clean Mr. Puddles' litter box?! He may be a Ninja Cat Super Spy, but he doesn't have opposable thumbs, people!


Sunday, December 11, 2011 1:13:00 PM  
Blogger Ken Houghton said...

"only one person alive could have credibly testified that Stuart Kearns was actually a loyal American doing his duty to protect and defend the United States. And here was that person, dead."

I liked this when it was called Mother Night. But Vonnegut's author didn't hang out with losers, so everyone believed he was his image. Kearns hangs out with losers, and no one except someone paying attention to the people the FBI has been claiming are "running conspiracies"--most of whom would fail running a local bodega, or the only dry cleaner within ten miles--would believe Kearns was Good At His Job.

Monday, December 12, 2011 5:20:00 PM  
Blogger Ken Houghton said...

By the way, it's not just that they stay on the truck for three miles--it's that they set the thing for three miles, specifically, and then stay there.

Yes, the chance grows greater that your terrorist will stop the farther (away) you let him get. But three miles was arbitrary in the first place.

Maybe it's the length of time Stuart thinks it would take Danny to give him a blow job. (Textual evidence: Kearns offers Danny "a cigarette.") But at any rate--even if you know the road, and the GPS coordinates three miles therefrom--it's silly to set it for any distance if you're not going to jump, and not to set it for a longer distance if you are.

Only authors who believe Glenn Beck's--er, Danny's--"I'm getting too old for this Shitty Organization" speech is more important than successfully stopping a terrorist organization would select this trick of the tail.

Monday, December 12, 2011 5:35:00 PM  

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