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I am not planning any nuclear attacks (henrysmith.org)
250 points by technicalfault on Aug 15, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 146 comments

Bruce Schneier calls this the "war on the unexpected". If you take average people, who aren't experts at security / investigating / etc, and you tell these people "if you see something, say something", then you're going to get a ridiculous amount of false positives.


Everything "unusual" becomes suspicious. See a guy taking photos at an airport? Must be a terrorist! Can't be a photographer and aviation enthusiast, no!

As Bruce says, the CYA angle is also horrific. Landlord sees something, thinks it might be nothing, but just in case, tells the local cops. Cops figure it might be nothing, but just in case, calls the FBI. Branch office figure it might be nothing, but just in case, gets regional / national HQ involved. Somewhere in the chain someone inadvertently gets word to the other 3-letter agencies, and the effect is magnified.

... and every time it's escalated, people figure "well, the people below me wouldn't have escalated unless they had reason to" ... while at the same time thinking, "well, I'm not sure, but I'm also not going to be the scapegoat if I fail to neutralize a potential attack and something does happen."

Everyone in the chain has plenty to lose and little to gain for not escalating to the next level -- nobody wants to be the guy who missed an opportunity to stop / neutralize a threat, especially in the unlikely-but-possible scenario that an attack does occur.

Regarding "if you see something, say something", Rick Moranis had an intelligent take on that at the beginning of his guest column in the NYTimes:


This is exactly the problem, as I have myself experienced firsthand.

The 'problem' is that all of us - everyone - has a number of ways in which their life is 'unusual'. Aberrant (deviating from the norm) is not inherently suspicious, because everyone is aberrant in some aspects of their life. Nobody is truly 'normal'. In fact, if you thoroughly investigated someone and found nothing that was 'abnormal'[0] in some way, that would be suspicious!

Most people's individual personalities and quirks aren't suspicious if you look at the whole picture, but when someone's entire job is to find evidence of 'abnormal' or 'suspicious' things about someone it means that they can construct a suspicious narrative about anyone, as long as they have the motivation or interest to[1].

In other words, it simply becomes a game of finding evidence that confirms one's own (or an organization's own) cognitive or systemic biases.

[0] More than 1 or 2 standard deviations away from the mean, etc.

[1] CYA is a common 'motivation' in this sense.

In fact, if you thoroughly investigated someone and found nothing that was 'abnormal' in some way, that would be suspicious!

I've heard spies are sometimes caught this way. Their life-profile is so deliberately normal that, having no quirks, they actually do stand out as such.

No kidding...

Was sitting on the runway and the cockpit door was open. Saw a really cool view out the window with the pilots and such, so I grabbed my DSLR and snapped a shot (I'm a photo geek).

Stewardess gave me issues about it and started telling me she didn't think it was allowed (it is to my knowledge), but I held my ground and it was fine.

I'm probably on some list now just for wanting a cool shot.

Yeah, it's really odd to spend effort maintaining haystacks, trying to keep their needle:straw ratio high, trying to grow and filter the haystack, et cetera, then pump giant aqueducts and funnels (pass it up!) of absolute crap intelligence into it. There needs to be a word for losing knowledge: instead of extracting knowledge from streams of input, you're smearing it all around, obfuscating the useful bits.

Devil's Advocate:

You are a nontechnical person and stumble upon what appear to be plans for a terrorist attack. You talk to the person about it and they say "Don't worry. is computer game".

A great exploration of this is the 30 Rock episode where Tina Fey reports her neighbor for what ends up being a plan to get on the show 'The Amazing Race'.

The problem is, not knowing any better, you feel obligated to report the activity just in case. Let someone much smarter than yourself decide what is really going on. If you say nothing and someone gets hurt, can you forgive yourself?

As a hacker, I would understand this is definitely a game. But can I really expect the same from non-technical people?

The problem is that everyone in the chain ends up buying into this. The police make a record of it 'just in case.' You end up on a no-fly list 'just in case.' Everyone in the chain is covering their ass 'just in case' this person really is a terrorist.

No one ends up willing to stick their neck out and say, "this person probably isn't a terrorist"... just in case.

This is exactly what happened in the Twitter Joke Trial:

"The airport management considered the message to be "not credible" as a threat, but contacted the police anyway."

They ended up finding something unrelated to actually protecting the public from a terrorist threat that they thought would stick after it got escalated to the point where they couldn't back down. This led to a conviction (eventually overturned on appeal).


The extreme example of "everyone in the chain" buying into an extreme form of this thinking came in the form of the "1% doctrine" articulated by then-Vice President Dick Cheney: "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response."

Much of the post-9/11 response to terrorism fits it.

"We captured a bunch of people. Some are harmless unfortunate bystanders. Some are dangerous people who are nevertheless not immune to handcuffs. Still, we'd better lock them up in harsh conditions without trial just in case."

"Iraq probably has no nuclear weapons and no means to deliver one, but we'd better invade the country just in case. We don't want to be wrong and end up with a mushroom cloud over Manhattan."

> Much of the post-9/11 response to terrorism fits it.

Naturally; the "1% Doctrine" was formulated very shortly after 9/11 and, while the quote articulating it addresses Pakistani scientists aiding al-Qaeda, the significance is that it was a critical framing mindset from the highest levels for the Bush Administration policy on terrorism.


>Shortly after September 11th 2001, I thought to myself, and now someone will turn up minor intelligence warnings of something-or-other, and then the hindsight will begin. Yes, I'm sure they had some minor warnings of an al Qaeda plot, but they probably also had minor warnings of mafia activity, nuclear material for sale, and an invasion from Mars.

>Because we don't see the cost of a general policy, we learn overly specific lessons. After September 11th, the FAA prohibited box-cutters on airplanes—as if the problem had been the failure to take this particular "obvious" precaution. We don't learn the general lesson: the cost of effective caution is very high because you must attend to problems that are not as obvious now as past problems seem in hindsight.

And it all becomes Kafkaesque and you can't get the bureaucracy to respond because '... it might reveal our methods and tactics in combating global terrorism.'

One big problem is that people take the idea of "better safe than sorry" as a way to avoid thought. Don't analyze the situation, just pick the option that appears safest after a glance!

What it should mean is that you should take both probabilities and costs into account when deciding what to do, as it's often worth doing something easy to reduce the risk of something unlikely but catastrophic.

But that doesn't mean you can just avoid thinking about it! "Often" doesn't mean "always". For example, it's worth checking the tire pressure in your car on a regular basis, because incorrect pressure could lead to a blowout at high speeds which can be most unpleasant, and checking it takes little time. But it's not worth checking the car for bombs every time you drive it, at least not for most of us, because the odds of being the victim of a car bomb for most of us are indistinguishable from zero.

A little thought reveals that this case is clearly in the second category, and thus calling the police is just a waste of public resources. But if you're incorrectly using "better safe than sorry" to mean "pick the option that appears to be safe without any analysis", you're not going to apply a little thought.

> One big problem is that people take the idea of "better safe than sorry" as a way to avoid thought.

Sure, and while things like responses to terrorism are rather dramatic examples of that, "zero tolerance policies" in general are also a place where this manifests.

>as a way to avoid thought.

no. It is a way to avoid liability, an insurance of a kind. Property owner would get his property confiscated if he knew or had reason to know about an illegal activity happening on the property. Trying to apply "thought" would expose her/him even to larger liability in case of a mistake. Thus blanket reporting of anything is the best liability minimizing strategy.

> >as a way to avoid thought.

> no. It is a way to avoid liability

Its both, and largely the liability involved is the responsibility to apply thought.

> One big problem is that people take the idea of "better safe than sorry" as a way to avoid thought. Don't analyze the situation, just pick the option that appears safest after a glance!

Which in the innocuous cases is the option that is least safe:

If you flag everything as suspicious then you waste law enforcement resources investigating nothing that could have been used to investigate something.

Increasing the false positive rate makes it easier for genuine threats to blend into the noise. If you cry wolf for every neighbor's puppy the townspeople soon stop responding.

And then you make enemies out of the communities you're unnecessarily harassing, which leads to "Fuck the Police" culture where people won't even report obvious and serious threats because they don't want to attract a bunch of unthinking jackboots who might just as soon arrest victims and bystanders as the perpetrators.

Fantastic point that cannot be understated. When thinking about this I assumed the authorities would run some quick sanity check and dismiss it. While that probably does happen, we often see cases where it has not worked that way.

It takes only the barest application of common sense to realize that an ICBM attack is not going to be planned on a whiteboard in plain view in some random apartment. It does not actually appear to be plans for a terrorist attack, because terrorists don't have ICBMs.

1. How do I know they don't have ICBMs? Bill O'Reilly hasn't told me that yet.

2. Or, we don't have ICBM's yet. Hoping that part of the plan will work itself out. Step 1: Collect underpants ... Step 3: Profit!

2. Maybe this terrorist is just working from home and trying to understand the larger plan. Or he could be brainstorming for a future powerpoint presentation on the subject.

Just having some fun with the idea.

Also: Terrorist are not too concerned about mouseclicks ....

He's just making a Visual BASIC GUI for the terrorist attack[1].

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkDD03yeLnU

Impossible, Microsoft's EULA surely prohibits use by terrorists.

This example illustrates the very slippery slope we find ourselves on today. The problem is that it's really no ones business unless and until I break a law. I shouldn't have to justify may legal actions to anyone, regardless of what they do and don't understand.

No particular technical sophistication should be required to understand that terrorists do not launch intercontinental missiles.

Sometimes it is because, even if the chance it's real is slim, the stakes would be incredibly high. One time I thought I witnessed a kidnapping, a woman shackled and gagged in the back of a car. I contacted the police and they very thoroughly and professionally pursued it. Afterwards they told me the two people involved were engaged in sexual roleplay. She wasn't being kidnapped, it seemed kind of unusual (you had to be there) but I would have been irresponsible in not reporting it.

On the other hand, they could have been SWATed, and it probably cost my city government five digits. I don't have an answer.

Ha nice, I immediately thought of that episode to after reading this. I really miss that show :(.

It is a good point, but I wonder when it breaks down and turns into something like McCarthyism.

Ohh I'd say about 13 years ago.

But the people higher up the chain don't get to see the whiteboards and so can't easily dismiss this as planning a computer game. Unless the agents took photos?

The priori of a dude planning an ICBM attack on whiteboard in an apt is so low that unless you have very very strong evidences that it exists (and words by random people without photos certainly don't count as one), for all practical purposes, it isn't true.

And I sincerely do hope that if such a plan truly exists somewhere, the power that be have better evidences/ discovery than being informed by letting agents.

Unfortunately, the probability that someone is able to understand this logic is lowered considerably once you realize that they're working in a job where they're required to act on such threats. Most people who are capable of such calculations will not find such jobs fulfilling, and those who do will find themselves constantly second-guessed by bosses who don't have that skill. It's a profession that selects against Bayesian reasoning.

Humans are -really- bad at intuitively calculating risk, and I have yet to encounter any sort of formal education in the US that teaches us how to properly calculate it.

Why do you feel obligated to report the activity?

Ah, letting agents.

I got evicted from a property years ago because they did a surprise inspection while I was out (which is, of course, totally illegal), and decided they'd found "mountains of cocaine" on the kitchen counters.

It was fucking Ajax kitchen cleaning powder. Still, they didn't care. The police (who they contacted) thought it was laughable, but couldn't do anything about the fact they were evicting me.

For the sake of clarity it's worth noting that in England tenant rights are quite good. For an eviction to take place it must be ordered by the courts and a landlord can only apply to the courts for possession after providing a tenant with 2 months notice. A quick eviction in England takes 3 months, an average eviction is closer to 5 and in some cases it can take much much longer. The only situation in which someone can be evicted with no notice is if they are a lodger (renting a room with a resident landlord), which wouldn't involve letting agents or inspections. The confusion over evictions in England comes from tenants not understanding their rights, a notice to quit (Section 21) is NOT an eviction.

A tenant can only be evicted for rent arrears if they have over 2 months rent due (and bringing the arrears under 2 months at any time invalidates any court action), landlords cannot evict if they have not legally protected the tenants deposit and landlords have no rights to enter a tenanted property unless it is an emergency.

And then you'll never be able to rent again. At least through a letting agent, which is how most rentals occur.

I'd love to know why this is down voted, because it is unequivocally true.

Nearly all letting agents (probably all?) in the UK vet potential tenants and will run various forms of check, including credit checks. They will also ask for previous addresses, and if previously renting, will demand a reference from the previous agency and landlord.

(Not legal advice.)

Someone giving you a bad reference, or refusing to give a reference, because you won a legal case against them is generally the kind of thing that could get another legal case started.

On what grounds? If the previous landlord gives truthful reference (i.e. no slander and nothing illegal) when asked, including the trouble they had to go through to evict you, there's nothing to sue them over.

But that information alone would be very useful input for my decision on whether to lent to you or not.

What state did you live in? You've got tenant rights, and one of them is almost certainly "You can't be evicted for cleaning your apartment." Just a wild guess.

The fine state of County Durham.

As a tenant - a student tenant, no less - your rights are virtually squat.

That is absolutely not true. Having rented properties in the UK I know that letting agencies will treat you like shit. No matter. Contact the property ombudsman, he will sort them out:


Might even recommend going to court over it.

Brit chiming in here. The contempt that estate agents and landlords have for your privacy, well-being and life in general is almost indescribable.

In the UK you almost certainly have an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (even if the agent says you don't). This gives you a lot of strong rights which you can use if you know how.

In practice the agent or landlord has a lot of leverage but you can often win if you use the law to your advantage. In particular there is a very specific set of steps they have to follow to evict you.

Licenses/contracts are quite popular in place of ASTs in student/shared/bed sit accommodation.

Even in housing association properties, you can have a 2 year "trial" period.

You only have to lightly scratch below the surface these days to find rights eroded left and right.

EDIT: I said "in place of ASTs", but ASTs aren't always appropriate.

My understanding was that, roughly, if you pay a regular payment as rent for a property then you have an AST - whether the contract says so or not.

This is mainly in the context of house/flat rentals though; I realise that perhaps per-room rentals may have special cases.

Do such contracts actually make a difference, though? You can put anything you want into a contract, but that doesn't mean it's enforceable. An apartment lease can say, "Tenant waives all renters' rights under the law," but the tenant will still have all rights granted him by law. Is the problem simply that people believe the enforceability of their contracts beyond what is actually true?

I understand your point about other laws overruling contract law, but for housing (and I admit I haven't read the Housing Act(s)), I believe your rights under those acts are dependent on what kind of agreement is in place and the housing situation.

Oh, I'm aware, and I essentially rolled over as I wan't too bothered about having to move, as I was sick to the eye teeth of dealing with them, and the property was barely habitable. Eviction was their threat if I didn't leave of my own volition.

They thought a student had 'mountains of cocaine'? Don't they realise how expensive that stuff is?!

Of course not. That would require understanding something beyond one's own immediate world.

Knowing some landlords, the number one thing they complain about is how impossible it is to evict anyone. I really doubt you had any rights.

was that last sentence the opposite of what you intended to type?

What did the court say when they applied for a possession order?

To be fair, they just gave me my marching orders and said they'd proceed to eviction if I didn't scram - and scram I did, as the place was falling down anyway.

So were not actually evicted.

He also states:

"As a tenant - a student tenant, no less - your rights are virtually squat."

This is patently false.

So, the ol' bluff a college student because they don't know better.

This reminds me so much of an awesome 30 Rock episode where Fred Armisen plays the middle eastern neighbor of Tina Fey's character. She ultimately gets him turned in for planning an attack, when he was just preparing for The Amazing Race with his friend.

Its sad how sensationalist and afraid we have become.

I think "cautious" is a better word. What aspect of this story was sensationalist?

The part where a game design document on a whiteboard resulted in referral to the police?

I think "cautious" is white-washing of the highest caliber.

I prefer "gibbering bongo full-goose paranoia".

Avoiding the rough part of town at night is cautious. Turning in a neighbor for basically nothing is sensationalist.

What are the odds that someone leasing a house has control of an ICBM and is making plans to use it on his home whiteboard? People, especially stupid people, that can't mind their own business, are both dangerous and endlessly frustrating. Personally, I hope this guy tries to get the letting agent fired.

Henry I'm not sure if you are checking this thread, and I can't find a way to contact you on your site but...

I wanted to see more of your posts, so trimmed the URL down to "http://henrysmith.org/blog/" and got an error message "Included file 'navbar.html' not found in _includes directory" at the top of your page. Clicking your name in the left directs me to henrysmith.org which doesn't have this problem.

I'm doing work with a drug testing company, that generates a lot of stuff you wouldn't want taken out of context. This kind of stuff: "How's the meth goin?" - "Oh great. We're getting loads this week" "And the Steroids" - " Ah, not so well. Bob's lab is running behind, they're really busy"

I'd be livid if something like this happened. I think it's worth this chap getting the details of the police report, and speaking to someone on the force directly. He needs to be assured that he won't end up on any "lists".

I'm not sure whether he has any legal recourse over this. I doubt it, but he has potentially been materially disadvantaged (if indeed, it goes "up the chain" and he finds visas being denied).

At the very least, he needs to enumerate to his landlord the various ways in which this could seriously affect him, and ask for a rent reduction.

Par for the course with letting agents in the UK. I'm surprised they didn't begin evicting the renter. Using a property for work is often prohibited in the boilerplate rental agreements they charge £100 a time to change the name on.

Hardly, that is a personal project so wouldn't count as work. Renting a property for non-commercial use then running an office out of it is quite rightfully prohibited.

From what I understand, in the UK at least, they obviously can't stop you from working at home or running a business from home or setting up an office in your home.

What they don't like is using your rented home as a warehouse or place where customers regularly visit. That kind of thing usually needs some kind of licence from the council.

As if they could comprehend the difference.

And anyway - quite wrongly! What if one works from home?

And whatever happened to fostering entrepreneurship, innovation and asking people to take their own lives in their hands by doing things like setting up their own company, all these things that the current UK conservative government claims to want and support?

The law around lettings in the UK is detrimental not just to those who rent in the UK but the country as a whole.

The simple answer is - insurance. Let's say that you have an accident at home while doing your office work(because you stayed at home that day), and the house is on fire. Suddenly the insurance agency refuses to pay because the house was not insured for commercial purposes. Stupid, I know.

There must be ways around this - I live in the US, and I have never heard of a renter not being able to work from home.

I live in the UK and I have never heard of a renter not being able to work from home. I think any provisions in the contract are to stop commercial enterprises being run out of rented properties rather than stop people from remotely working.

Tip: just before you pull out your card to pay the fees, look into the kid's eyes and say something like "ummmm, this seems a lot, I don't really feel comfortable paying this much, can we reduce this at all?" The guy starts sweating as he sees his commission disappearing into the sunset, replaced by the prospect of a grovelling call to the property owner. They will often knock off about 50%. Sometimes you can just refuse to pay. Depends on the market.

NB for best results, start your contract at the worst time of the year for landlords, usually just after all the students have finished moving. Also, be at least a foot taller than your letting agent.

Sorry but I live in a place where supply of property, rental or otherwise, is so constrained when compared to demand that any local letting agent knows they can rent out any place within a week. You go along with whatever they say or you don't get the place. End of story.

Sorry to hear that :( In the last couple of years a number of developers flooded our town with cheap student housing units so the market has kinda been upended, much to our delight.

You're doing well to be charged £100. We just renewed our tenancy, and got charged £120 by the letting agents to process us signing the same agreement we signed 12 months ago, and update their records to show we're not due to do so again for another year.

Fortunately that kind of thing has been outlawed in Scotland. Letting agents can no longer charge supplementary fees to tenants.

"As a result of this consultation, we will make it crystal clear to tenants, landlords and their agents that all premium fees, over and above rent and a deposit, are unlawful." - Housing Minister, Keith Brown


For anyone else in this situation who is not aware, by default an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (which you probably have if you're renting all of a self-contained dwelling) becomes a statutory periodic tenancy (i.e., usually, rolling monthly on the same terms) at the end of the initial contract period - this requires no action on the part of anyone involved so you can politely tell the agents where to stick their £100+ bill, assuming you don't mind being on a rolling monthly contract. You can of course do this next time you're due to renew even if you've paid for it before.

I've done this in four out of the five places I've rented over the years (the fifth being a special case as the landlord wanted to sell) and had no problems - although I had to argue the point with one agent who initially insisted I had no choice but to cough up. Pays to know your rights :-)

Sources: This guide is great and used to be on the UK government website:


Since superseded by:


which sadly doesn't seem to cover as much detail.

This is interesting. I've always been given, along with an initial rental agreement, a letter dated for the end of the tenancy that asks me to leave the property. It was my understanding that this is enough for the agent to easily eject you at the end of the agreement period unless you follow what they want.

Serving you notice before you've even moved in sounds like a pretty shady practise to me, and one that I'd be inclined to challenge before I signed anything.

If they attempt that sorts of trick before you've even paid them a penny, that doesn't bode well for the rest of the tenancy in my opinion!

To update the date on the contract (renew)! You've been had! I only paid £80 for that!

Never actually saw a version of the contract with an updated date, mind you. I am trusting them that it exists.

> Using a property for work is often prohibited in the boilerplate rental agreements

To be fair using the property for work changes the insurance and tax situation.

Insurance maybe. But I doubt it changes buildings insurance (which is the only insurance a landlord will take out.) Tax not really - only if one wanted to claim back the income tax one pays on a percentage of their rent, a percentage in line with the percentage of the property used for solely work. That has nothing to do with the agent / landlord.

Sadly, if you look carefully at the pictures, it's pretty clear it's for a game...and I didn't even need to read that he mentioned that they were game ideas.

Goes to show how dumb people can be.

No it's not. At all. I mean, a rational person might make the assumption that this guy is not actually whiteboarding an ICBM launch from a rented apartment. But there's nothing about it indicating to a non-technical person that it's a game.

>Rational person might make the assumption that this guy is not actually whiteboarding an ICBM launch from a rented apartment

In my mind the real problem is that there is nothing wrong with "whiteboarding an ICBM launch". Me or me and my friends have every right get wargame 1980 or 2014 global thermonuclear war. Its seems like it would be a fascinating intellectual exercise. For that matter why can't people wargame terrorist plots, apply game theory, etc.

Between first amendment rights and the need for academic freedom, people should and do have every right to do this. In someone saw this can became concerned, they have have every-right to investigate, but in my mind, so long as it doesn't involve anything official or contacting the people involved without tangible evidence.

After all, if I talk about what might happen in a car crash, it doesn't remotely imply I intend to go out and get into one.

Uhhh? The "mouse click" was a dead give away. Also, Occam's Razor. Is this guy programming a game in his apartment or is he programming a ICBM with 0 related hardware plus probably no other corroborating evidence. No reason to act like it takes more than a couple minutes of investigation to figure this shit out.

Edit: for the guy below me, since I can't reply directly, find me a nuclear missile guidance system that is destination controlled by a freaking mouse clicking on a map in the Pentagon and I'll concede the point.

Well, there's this:

“A left mouse push fires it. Kinda crazy really. We actually asked for a great big red button, but they wouldn't give us one.” ¹

Though that's in reference to submarine-launched non-nuclear cruise missiles, not ICBMs. ICBMs might still rate a great big red button.

Not that OP's experience is any less silly.

¹ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3078097.stm

Yep, you'd never find something so silly as a computer mouse in the Pentagon.

except ICBMs are not launched with a mouse click.... wth.

1. How do you know that?

2. How would an average person know that?

It's not irrational to think that launching an ICBM might involve a computer and therefore a mouse. Hell, I'd be surprised if it didn't. I doubt the Pentagon has posted videos of whatever it is they use on YouTube, so it's silly to ask for proof.

As I said, I agree that it is irrational to think the guy was whiteboarding an ICBM launch. (Not to mention while terrorists could conceivably get a dirty bomb, an ICBM seems well out of the question.) But there is nothing in those photos that would lead an average person to believe it was a game.

I don't need to find a nuclear missile guidance system that is destination controlled by a freaking mouse click, because that is not what is being argued.

What is being argued is that it is not out of the question to expect that such a system may or could exist. It's not unreasonable to think that it could.

Occam's Razor. Are all of our nukes controlled solely by systems that do not involve a mouse, or might there be a computer sophisticated enough somewhere in that launch process that it might make use of a mouse?

I can't even begin to understand how a rational person would think this.

Someone is going to launch a missile from Russia to the United States.. and this person needs a whiteboard with a crudely drawn line to DC and a blast radius drawing to help him do it?

I don't even have to read any of the text to know this is ridiculous.

Plenty of people designing complicated things do crude whiteboard sketches to help them discuss or reason at a high level.

How much you want to bet there are whiteboards at NASA with cartoon squiggles of "Earth" --> "Mars" on them?

We are arguing whether it is out of the question to expect that such a system's TARGETING is based on clicking a point on a imprecise map (per the rest of the whiteboard). It is completely out of the question to expect ICBM to be targeted with a mouse. You are (incorrectly) extrapolating the mouse click to mean that there is a mouse click somewhere in the process and NOT at the exact point drawn on the board. If you follow the flow chart, it says mouse click and then gets the target location based on that imprecise click.

> imprecise click.

"Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear war"

When you're dealing with high-yield nuclear warheads, anywhere within a few hundred miles of your desired target is probably going to be plenty good enough.

Actually, that's a pretty horrendous common mistake. The maximum of the blast radius of every nuclear warhead is below 50 miles. The biggest one ever designed, but not tested, by the USSR (larger than the US) was 100 MT which would've had a blast radius (third degree burns) of 46.5 miles, if it was detonated at 50,000ft , less with lower heights. That is a far cry from "within a few hundred miles".

What area was contaminated by radioactive fallout?

Common sense tells that anyone who has access to Intercontinental Missiles probably does not sketch a trajectory by hand on a whiteboard in a rental apartment. Even if there were no it-technical context, it could be a plan for a novel or a movie script. Than much even non-technical people with common sense should be able to guess.

Honestly I hope that even non-technical people know that the blast radius of a nuclear bomb is somewhere around the size of a city, not several US states. But there goes my optimism again...

Mostly not. Somehow, the general public has been convinced that nuclear war means wiping out all life on the planet (when in reality it would be horrible, and kill an unimaginably large number of people, but wouldn't even wipe out humanity, let alone all life) and accordingly the effects of a nuclear explosion have been vastly exaggerated in the mind of the average Joe.

Part of the problem is probably linear extrapolation from Hiroshima to the Tsar Bomba, not realizing that blast radius scales up very much sub-linearly, practical bombs meant to be used in war are way smaller than Tsar Bomba, and Hiroshima was basically constructed out of paper.

I highly doubt it. Why would they? It doesn't change who wins an NBA game.

Actually, it's not clear at all. The only clue I found that it's only a virtual plan is one mention of "WebRTC" in the third image. Far from obvious for most non-programers.

I'm going to get downvoted for this but I cannot believe what I'm reading... we're talking about a nuclear attack involving inter-continental missiles. I'm far from an expert on this subject but I'm pretty sure you cannot build one in your garage on your own. (and especially not with a simple schema on a white board).

Of course, which is why the whole thing is ridiculous - but that would be true even if the person was planning an actual nuclear attack - in a free country, the only reasonable course of action would be to "let them try" - obviously there is no chance of success.

If they actually do get anywhere, AFAIK possession of radioactive material is illegal, so that's when you could actually arrest them.

You don't need to ever reply to tomp.

:( Why not?

"Mouse click"

That's the mouse that you put in the nose of a MIRV, and when it starts clicking its teeth because it's damnably chilly in space, it's time to re-enter. Right?

Nukes are computer controlled.

Computers have mice.

Mice are used for things other than playing games.

They are indeed.

But the computers which control launch and targeting operations predate mice by decades. Launching is usually an affair involving lots of panels coated in blinkenlights and big clicky buttons, switches under panels, and then, finally, two keys, and a button push.

Fun fact: the soviets designed their launch control rooms in such a fashion that one person could turn both keys.

Here's someone's snapshot of the control room I'm thinking of - which was a standardised design. Got to push the button!


Anyway. Take your point, but it'd still require a pretty high level of general ignorance to mistake this for any variety of authentic threat.

> Nukes are computer controlled.

"Guided" sure, "controlled" is a bit ambiguous. Launching them requires more than just a click.

Possibly not, although it's far from clear: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Hand_(nuclear_war)

Such as directing nuclear missiles? Better not run out of battery while hovering over China then...

Yes, it is clear. The only groups which possess ICBMs are the governments of the USA, Russia, China, India, and possibly North Korea. None of these groups would be doing any planning on a whiteboard located in some random English apartment. Thus, the only clue you need to know that this is not a real plan is the fact that it involves ICBMs and it's on a whiteboard in a random English apartment.

Common sense isn't quite as "common" anymore. If you actually read those diagrams it is pretty obvious (to me) that that is a game, and not some missile design or "plan" (although who plans a state missile attack from their apartment?).

From his previous blog post, they could tell it was a game:

“Except… the person who did the inspection did have some concerns about one thing. There were some… whiteboards? And some… drawings on them?”

“Ah shit! Yeah I totally forgot about those! You mean the nuclear attack thing, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Yeeeeeah…. Sorry! You see…. It’s for this game I was making! It’s like, a web thing and it uses Google Maps to simulate a nuclear war.”

“Ahhh, okay! We kind of thought it had something to do with gaming!”

Apparently somebody was still worried about the idea of a realistic nuclear attack simulation game. Reminds me of the time some kid was arrested for making a Counterstrike map based on his high school.

> Reminds me of the time some kid was arrested for making a Counterstrike map based on his high school.

Nobody seemed to mention this, and I feel quite old saying its, but "Global Thermonuclear War" was the name of the simulation Matthew Broderick's character played in "War Games", which should have been another clue to the authorities or whoever that it's just a game.

That is the exact name an actual terrorist would use to cleverly hide his real purpose and thwart the authorities.

> Apparently somebody was still worried about the idea of a realistic nuclear attack simulation game. Reminds me of the time some kid was arrested for making a Counterstrike map based on his high school.

This is even more ridiculous. The kid could reasonably obtain weapons and bring them to school. The likelihood of obtaining an ICBM is nil.

Sort of, but it's hard for me to get angry at the people who called the police in either case. Yeah, they should have more common sense, but the police are the ones with responsibility here. If you're scared you're scared, and you should be able to call the police for pretty much any reason and expect them to deal with it rationally and professionally.

In this case, if the police just show up, look at the whiteboard, laugh it off and leave, then I would say no harm done. Whoever called them feels safer, and everyone else has at worst been inconvenienced for a half hour.

I agree that the police shoulder the responsibility to say, "this guy is not a terrorist," and that a failure of common sense on their part is more egregious than on the part of the 'common man.'

If we assume that all terrorists that are planning to launch ICBMs are smart, then all of the ICBMs launched by dumb terrorists will fly under the radar. Then we'll have nuclear attacks that could have easily been prevented! /s

This seems relevant:


Title is "Dont Talk to Police" from 2008. Henry Smith should probably watch it.

I love this video so much, a while back I made a Bitly link to make it easy to remember and share to my friends when out-and-about.


Wow, sounds like 1990 over again i.e. Steve Jackson Games.

For those not familiar, Steve Jackson Games makes RPGs and were nearly driven out of business due to a secret service raid[1] done in response to the "GURPS Cyberpunk" book (described by the secret service as "a manual for computer crime") they were working on.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Sundevil

"This raid is often wrongly attributed to Operation Sundevil, a nation-wide crackdown on ‘illegal computer hacking activities’ that was occurring about this time."


I actually saw that and forgot to update the link to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Jackson_Games,_Inc._v._U...

Planning a missile strike by drawing a crude world map with an explosion (labeled "explosion") is like planning a killing spree by drawing a stick figure with an uzi in each hand mowing down other stick figures.

Funny/Scary. Imagine that instead of the nuclear war map, the landlords encountered the image you described. OP would be in detention/questioning right now.

Zero tolerance public schools have taught us that anyone who can draw a gun is a terrorist.

Wondering if Introversion Software had to deal with this when they made Defcon (http://www.introversion.co.uk/defcon/)...

Shall we play a game? How about Global Thermonuclear War.

The only thing missing from those photos was a telephone and and old school desktop modem.[1]

[1] http://pc-museum.com/046-imsai8080/wargames-02.jpg

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

"I am not planning any nuclear attacks as my centrifuges are on the fritz and I have been unable to procure switches accurate enough to get a good implosion out of my C4 detonators. Also, it turns out that my ICBM designs are prohibitively expensive, and the Russians will not let me have access to their launch sites for some reason."

That's a hell of a blast radius.

Yup it seems off by at least an order of magnitude --ie even for a theoretical maximum of 100 megatons.

hahahaha, awesome!

Law enforcement is full of retarded psycopaths? What's new?

Something weird-looking about France and Germany there...

Ah, you guys are no fun. Sheesh. HN is no place for lighthearted banter apparently. I wear my downvotes with pride.

They were the first to fall under OP's brutal attack. RIP.

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