Showing posts with label personal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label personal. Show all posts

24 September 2014

Lee Child's Personal

by David Edgerley Gates

PERSONAL is the nineteenth Jack Reacher book in the series, and Lee Child doesn't need my help to sell it. It opened at #1 on most national lists the first week it was out, and week two, it's still there.

This post isn't about promoting the book, which happens to be a knockout - Lee certainly hasn't lost his chops, and Jack keeps getting deeper as a character - but about P.O.V.

PERSONAL is told, appropriately, in first-person. This isn't a departure for the Reacher books, but more commonly, they've been told in the third. In other words, Jack is observedand doesn't share his confidences. This is true of thirteen books, so far. It's interesting to me why you'd decide to shift gears. Lee uses the first-person in KILLING FLOOR, PERSUADER, THE ENEMY, GONE TOMORROW, THE AFFAIR, and this book. Oh, you might think, work with the change-up pitch to keep yourself on your toes and avoid getting stale, or to keep your readers invested, over the course of a long and successful run of novels, but it seems to me there's a more calculated narrative choice involved.

Reacher's never been entirely generic - unlike, say, Travis McGee. John MacDonald, famously, never wanted to do a series character, but he got talked into it. McGee has his quirks, but he remains a flat character, until you get to THE GREEN RIPPER, and he steps outside of himself, the formula no longer able to contain him. The dynamic for Reacher, even at the beginning, allows for more expansion and contraction. Lee Child himself has said that he meant from the get-go to write books that would be accessible, and commercial, and that Reacher was a conscious construct, designed - not market-researched, but a means to an end.

He turns out to be more. This is something that happens, and not always by accident. There are other examples. We might start out to write one story, and then find it gets away from us, or a walk-on part suddenly takes center stage, and completely unexpected. But in Reacher's case, Lee Child might have intended a sort of empty vessel, a hero you could inhabit with your own devices and desires, and what he wound up with was somebody whose own devices and desires overtook the original template. 

Which brings us back to choosing a voice. In each of the books where Jack himself is speaking, he invites our confidence, and we become complicit. This is, I think, most true of THE ENEMY and THE AFFAIR, which take place in the past, when Jack is still active military. One of my favorite lines, in all of the books, is a throwaway, from THE ENEMY, a seemingly casual remark. Reacher's gone to Germany, and they're outside some big U.S. Army armor base, Baumholder or the like. In the early morning fog, they hear the tanks coming back from a live-fire exercise. The sound of tank treads on pavement, the sound of the 20th century, Reacher thinks to himself, the Wehrmachtthe Soviets putting down the Budapest revolt. One of the rare instances where Reacher is reflective. It's a very telling detail. Jack's not your average lifer.

Also, in THE ENEMY, we get to meet not just Jack's brother Joe, but their mom, with her own past history in the French resistance, something neither of the boys know about. Lee revisits this in PERSONAL. The real zinger in the book, for my money, isn't ninety pages in, with the Russian (no spoilers), but a hundred pages in, the scene afterwards, at Pere Lachaise cemetery, where Jack visits his mother's grave. This is the entire argument for using first-person. We hear Jack's thoughts. We see him revealed.

Vulnerability isn't the first word that comes to mind, with Reacher. Far from it. He's kind of a force of nature, a guy without visible weakness. Big, and certain. Nobody you want to mess with. People do, and live to regret it - or don't. Live, anyway. A hard guy, and unsentimental. A guy you believe in. A guy you want on your side.

I don't think, though, that you believe in Jack Reacher simply because he's an unstoppable force. I think what Lee Child has done, in the course of the books, is to pull off a real hat-trick. You get used to Reacher in some diner by the side of the highway, hoping he's going to get a decent cup of java, or head-butting some asshole cop who gets in his face, just being Jack. What takes you off-guard is the occasional, and sudden, moment of clarity. He assesses the background, his immediate environment, the threat potential, how not? What makes Jack different, what gives him depth, isn't that he examines himself. He doesn't. But he knows who he is.

You could say this is one in a long line. Spade, or Marlowe, Lew Archer. Spenser, and Travis McGee. Kinsey Milhone, for that matter. Lone wolves, who stake out their turf, and make it their own. I beg to differ. Reacher is somehow on another plane. I don't know how to explain it to myself. Not even Bob Lee Swagger - and I bow to none in my admiration for Steve Hunter - but Lee's done something else. He's reinvented the character, he owns Jack Reacher. he speaks with his voice.

We identify with our characters. I do with mine. Lee seems to have actually inhabited Jack. This is a gift, or a kind of magic. I think it's astonishing. We don't all manage it. Not even. Lee got a gift. It wasn't handed to him, by any means, but we take it when the tray is passed.

04 August 2013

PINs and Passwords, Part 1

More often than you might imagine, financial institutions deploy inadequate security protection, the type of inadequacy where the word ‘woefully’ often finds itself used. I don’t know how much Discover has beefed up its on-line security since I last owned a card, but its password protection was weaker than some porn sites (so I’m told, ahem). It took Capital One and Washington Mutual a while to come up to speed, but my present bank still allows only a ten character password.

If a bank left the keys in their door at night or even left it unlocked, you could hardly blame the curious– or the wicked– for coming inside and wandering around. But that’s happened in the on-line financial world. Institutions lobby for harsh penalties, but their rantings and ravings are meant to detract attention from their own failings.

But a third party is involved, you, the customer. What do you have in your wallet?

From the aspect of a consumer, we can use the following to protect ourselves. From the standpoint of crime writers, we can use the information below to plot clues within a story.

… and PINs

Think about your PIN number, ‘PIN’ singular because most people use one for everything, even their security alarm code. And past behavior suggests people will continue using an easily exposed code even after reading an article like this.

But wait. Doesn't a 4-digit PIN imply guessing one is only a 1-in-10,000 chance?

Not at all. Knowing a little about you (Social Security Number, birth date, etc.) might help hackers, but the PINs and alarm codes of one in four customers can be reduced to sixteen or so numbers.

Does yours begin with 1? Or 19?

The vast majority of PIN numbers begin with 1 or 0. If yours starts with 1, you’ve reduced the possibilities from 10,000 to 1000. If 19, your herd's shrunk to 100.

Do you use the internationally ubiquitous top N° 1 PIN? 1234? Or another of the popular sequential variants, 4321, 5678, 6789?

Does your number begin with 19xx, perhaps a date? The possible numbers are now one hundred, probably a lot less, maybe twenty possibilities if you’re young and eighty possibilities if you aren’t, but a few more if the number represents month-and-day (MMDD) or day-and-month (DDMM). Popular dates that go beyond birthdays include George Orwell's literary 1984 and historical years 1492 and 1776.

Take 2486, which has two strikes against it: It not only comprises semi-sequential even numbers, but it's also a visual pattern, a diamond on a keypad. Other popular visuals are a square (1397), a cross (2046), an X (1937), and the most popular of all, a straight line down the middle (2580). Visual patterns produce deceptively random-looking numbers, but statistics demonstrate they offer little security. And let's face it: Security and convenience find themselves at odds with each other.

'heat' map

statistical moiré

Using graphing tools and such visuals as 'heat maps', researchers can determine less than obvious patterns. Some stand out like stars in the sky while others exhibit a warp and woof of woven fabric revealing unconscious human subtleties we're unaware of.

People love couplets, paired digits such as 1010, 1212, the ever-popular 6969, Intel’s 8080, or that Zager and Evans song, 2525. Even when not using 9898 or 2323, people exhibit a preference for pairs one numeric step apart such as 2389 (2-3,8-9) or 5478 (5-4,7-8)) instead of 2479 or 5668. Perhaps we still hear childhood chants in our head from when we learned to count.

A few users exhibit a distinct lack of imagination, to wit: 0001. Others look to pop culture for inspiration, especially fans of James Bond (0007 or 0070), Star Trek (1701), or George Lucas (1138). The 1980s hit 867-5309 peaked at #4 on both the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the hottest 7-digit PIN list.

Some people can’t be bothered at all: 0000, 1111, 2222, 9999, etc. These same overall patterns persist with PINs longer than four digits although people tend to pick phone numbers when forced to select 7-digits, thus adding artificial randomization to the mix.

The problem with guessable PINs surprisingly worsens when customers are forced to use additional digits, moving from about a 25% probability with fifteen numbers to more than 30% (not counting 7-digits with all those phone numbers). In fact, about half of all 9-digit PINs can be reduced to two dozen possibilities, largely because more than 35% of all people use the all too tempting 123456789. As for the remaining 64%, there's a good chance they're using their Social Security Number, which makes them vulnerable. (And as we know, Social Security Numbers contain their own well-known patterns.)

To reemphasize, the greater the number of digits required, the more predictable selections become. Why? Why does the problem worsen with additional digits? As people are forced to use more digits, I hypothesize they react by falling back on easy-to-recall patterns such as sequences. Someone might remember 3791, but they won't easily recall 379114928, and they may reason 123456789 is as difficult as any other number.


The bad guys know these things. They don’t need high-speed analysis engines or intensive code-cracking software. They know the numbers and work the odds. As often as not, they can hack into an account– or your house or your medical files or your life– within moments.

Armed with only four possibilities, hackers can crack 20% of all PINs. Allow them no more than fifteen numbers, and they can tap the accounts of more than a quarter of card-holders.
If you absolutely cannot remember little used numbers and carry a reminder, at least code the number in some way.
• Some take a cue from old-fashioned costing codes that used alphabet substitution for digits: I=1, J=2, K=3, …
• Roman numerals might be another idea, e.g, 2009=MMIX.
• One handy method is to subtract your PIN from 9999 and write that down. When you need your PIN, you simply subtract the code from 9999 again. (For those who know hexadecimal (base 16: 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-A-B-C-D-E-F), this geeky technique is even more effective: Where F is 15, subtract your PIN from FFFF, e.g, 9531=6ACE. I used this method to label keys in an apartment complex: 1422B=EBDD4.)

Your job– you should choose to accept it– is to make breaking into your account as difficult as possible, not that institutions tell you what you really need to know: Their usual advice is to cover ATM and store keypads with your hand. Don’t tell anyone your PIN. Don’t write it on a stick-em and carry it in your billfold.

But you can do a lot more than that: Make your number as difficult to guess as possible.


So what numbers are rarely used? Generally, the higher the first digit, the less common the password. Of the ten least used PINs, four start with 8, two with 9, and two with 6. Just don’t blow your efforts with 8888 or 8000, or 9999 or 9000.

Tip: Sure, you want a number you can remember. Toward that end, I suggest picking an easy four letter word (or a word with the same number of letters as the number of PIN digits) you can remember, say ‘easy’ itself. Look at E-A-S-Y on a telephone keypad and you’ll see the letters correspond to 3279, which breaks the most obvious patterns. Reverse the digits if you like to make the combination harder. If your ATM doesn't show letters, then open your cell phone. See more tips in the box at right.


In the following table* of the twenty most used numbers, it becomes painfully obvious any baddie who’s learned only the first four or five most popular numbers can suck the money out of one in five ATM accounts. With a crib sheet of these twenty numbers, he can boost his takings to 27%.

Most Common PIN Numbers
rank PIN freq %
1 1234 10.713
2 1111 6.016
3 0000 1.881
4 1212 1.197
5 7777 0.745
6 1004 0.616
7 2000 0.613
8 4444 0.526
9 2222 0.516
10 6969 0.512
11 9999 0.451
12 3333 0.419
13 5555 0.395
14 6666 0.391
15 1122 0.366
16 1313 0.304
17 8888 0.303
18 4321 0.293
19 2001 0.290
20 1010 0.285

Least Common PIN Numbers
rank PIN freq %
9981 9047 0.001161
9982 8438 0.001161
9983 0439 0.001161
9984 9539 0.001161
9985 8196 0.001131
9986 7063 0.001131
9987 6093 0.001131
9988 6827 0.001101
9989 7394 0.001101
9990 0859 0.001072
9991 8957 0.001042
9992 9480 0.001042
9993 6793 0.001012
9994 8398 0.000982
9995 0738 0.000982
9996 7637 0.000953
9997 6835 0.000953
9998 9629 0.000953
9999 8093 0.000893
10000 8068 0.000744
* Credit for this table and the heat maps goes to math mensch and privacy professional, Nick Berry.


Now go forth and protect thy accounts. And drop me a line if you use these clues in your own stories.