NerdGuy Fridays

NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy Fridays #3: the 4th SMU, sprinting to the gun, & chionophobia

The 4th SMU

The US military has 4 designated SMUs, Special Mission Units. These are the elite of the elite units. Two you’ve heard of: Delta Force and DEVGRU (aka SEAL Team 6). Two you probably haven’t.
The 24th STS are the Air Force’s elite air controllers. These are the guys who can spend 3 days fighting to take an airport, coordinating all the air strikes, then, once the airport is taken, run dozens (or more) flights per hour, by themselves, with a handheld radio from a card table. Imagine one person suddenly taking all air traffic controller responsibilities for a major airport with minimal equipment and you get the idea. These guys are seriously good.
The 4th SMU goes by many names: The Intelligence Support Activity, The Activity, Team Orange, The Army of Northern Virginia, and others. Their name keeps changing to help hide them from the public eye. Their entire mandate is the gathering and coordinating of intelligence in support of the other 3 SMUs. They are small, elite, and often will be the ones to go on the ground ahead of time so that the SMUs know exactly how to attack.
I’ve written about them before several times, most notably in Night Stalkers #7 By Break of Day and Delta Force #3 Wild Justice. And I think I may have even met a retired one once. The person implied things specifically by what they weren’t able to talk about. A fascinating non-conversation in a way. Let’s just say that we were in a group discussion and they were surprised by what I’d unearthed doing my research…and also declined to point out anywhere I’d gone astray.
However, I’ve never seen a write-up about anyone in The Activity before. But if I read the article below right, that exactly what Chief Shannon Kent was. It’s a long read, but an utterly amazing story of an incredible warrior.
Also, do you want to waste even more time with NerdGuy? Click through on the driving course that was mentioned in the article. (Did I mention that there are several cool videos if you look at the different kinds of courses they offer? And then, if you get down into the rally driving courses, you’ll be thinking about the Night Stalkers #11 Target of One’s Own with my heroine rally driver.)

Sprinting to the gun

In 1983, Sergeant Stephen Tueller of the Salt Lake City Police Department asked an alarming question, “How close is too close?”

How close can an assailant be, perhaps with a knife or a club, that they can charge an officer faster than the officer can draw and fire? He recruited a number of volunteers and decided to find out.

Twenty-one feet.

Let’s think about that for a second. That’s longer than my Toyota Camry. It’s 27″ longer than a 1959 Cadillac Coup DeVille. In fact, it’s 2″ longer than a full-size Ford F-150 Supercab with the crew cab and the full 8′ bed.

Tueller’s research completely changed the question of when was the appropriate moment for an officer to draw against an attacker. I have a buddy who was a Vietnam-era Marine MP. He said that a lot of his job was hauling drunk Marines off to lockup until they dried out. When I mentioned Tueller’s Drill to him, he shivered. “There I was, manhandling some of the most lethal drunks ever, and I never thought to draw against even the most belligerent. I’m lucky I’m alive.” Of course, he was one tough-as-hell Marine himself.

Here’s the Mythbusters failure to bust that myth:

Now you understand why the emphasis on quick-draw holsters. I’ve read, but haven’t seen (despite a Google search), that Delta Force operators actually wear their pistols at the center of the abdomen so that they are actively aiming their weapon in the same motion that they are pulling it from the holster. (Hint: I wouldn’t try charging against a Delta Force operator anyway. Just sayin’.)

Tueller’s Drill, or Tueller’s Law as I learned it in a “Firearms & Fiction” course,  has appeared in several of my books, most recently in the upcoming Miranda Chase #3, Condor.


Looking for something new to be afraid of? How about chionophobia, the fear of snow (chion is Greek for the white fluffy stuff).

Want to know about the 35 types of snowflakes and how to study them? Pick up a copy of Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes. Trust me, you’ll want the print edition. Way fun!

By the way, it’s been confirmed that the Inuit do have roughly fifty (50) words for snow. But that’s barely a flurry. To properly catalog snow in all its many forms from “skelf” (a large snowflake) to “unbrak” (the beginning of the thaw), one should learn the four hundred and twenty-one (421!!) words cataloged as used by the Scots. So, next time your heads in a “feefle” (swirl) while standing out in the “spitters” (small flakes of driving snow) you’ll know what to call it.


NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy Fridays #2: color, faces, and kid-culture

Responses to Last Week’s NerdGuy post:

“Where can I find the British WWII planes my aunt flew to Britain?” (Thanks Deb)

Boneyarded? Ooo! Interesting… It’s a “boneyard” in Amer-English and a “graveyard” in Brit-English. Neat!

The Davis-Monthan boneyard is strictly for planes run by the US. They do have a few British planes, such as the Harrier, but they were ones flown by the US. After a quick scan of the inventory, the oldest planes I spotted were still active in the early 1960s and were built in the 1950s. It seems all of the WWII era planes are gone, at least from there. I’d say to find anything older, they might be out in the various private salvage yards (there are 5-6 right near DM) or in museums…or rotting in farmer’s fields. There are some very cool airshows where they show up sometimes. The monsters, of course, are Osh Kosh (I’m dying to go some year) and Abbotsford (which I never made it to when I was on the west coast). But if you keep an eye out, you’ll get the occasional B-17 or a Japanese Zero.

The Brits do love their old planes, so a British airshow is bound to have several working classics.
But as to “graveyards”, the Brits have two primary ones according to Wikipedia. The Cotswold Airport (aka Kemble Field) is a certified salvage yard. They also keep a number of planes on display (though I don’t know how many are flyable). The other, RAF Shawbury, lists planes as “post WWII” (but with no posted inventory) so I’m not hopeful that you’ll find what you’re looking for there. Shawbury has just 4 storage hangars there. They’re listed as being specially dehumidified to maintain planes in readiness for reactivation (plus a few older aircraft not yet scrapped). Doesn’t sound too hopeful.
Apparently there was a good one in Shropshire, but most of it was trashed or moved to East Midlands which looks to be a museum. EM has an inventory list, but I don’t know my Brit planes well enough to easily know how far back they go.

Yep! NerdGuy. Two of the best collections in the Pacific NW are Boeing Museum of Flight in South Seattle and the unlikely Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in farmlands of McMinnville, Oregon (which includes the Spruce Goose and an SR-71 Blackbird as well as a wide variety of other curious craft–sadly, they sold their pristine Ford Tri-Motor during near bankruptcy). I haven’t found the good air museums in the Northeast yet…I can’t even find any decent airshows here. SIGH!

The Color Nude

There is a wonderful book about color which includes notes, history, or just cool facts of hundreds of colors.

The Secret Lives of Color
Click to view on AMZ

The one that intrigued me this week is “Nude” Pantone 7506 C. (I’ll saving geeking out over the different ways that Pantone colors work for some other time [they vary by a surprising number of curious criteria]. And that’s not even getting into the Pantone colors of the year. Suffice to say that Pantone is how most colors are cataloged when they need to be reproducible.)

Pantone 7506 C

Ms. St. Clair’s description talks about the moment that “Nude” became one of the hottest news topics of 2010. Why did such a timid color take up so many news column-inches?

The US First Lady wore a gown to greet the President of India that was described in the news as silver- and “flesh-colored.” The designer, also of Indian extraction, described it as “nude.” The catch? The First Lady was Michelle Obama. Suddenly this poor, unassuming, warm-cream color became the center of a media storm.Michelle Obama gownWhat I love is one of the not-big-news reactions to it. The artist Angelica Dass decided to redefine “nude.” (I don’t know if it was in direct reaction, but she started her project just 2 years later, so I’m guessing the influence was part of it.) Her project was to photograph real people against a background of their own true skin tone, and label it with the appropriate Pantone color designation.

You can see her wonderful project here:

Or watch her TED talk here:

Folks’ Faces

As long as we’re looking at people’s faces…

As a writer, I have to present characters who are distinct and distinguishable. Some of that is done with: mannerisms, speech patterns, distinct naming… But sometimes its just as simple as what they look like.

So, how do I go about finding race-typical facial characteristics to describe and use for “her thin-lipped  scowl” or “his sniff of hawk-nosed disdain”? (Okay, a bit clunky, but you get the idea.)

Well, the folks at Leading Personality used a super-cool tool developed by the University of Glasgow Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology (warning, you can lose a lot of time playing with the tool in that second link and I’ve so far resisted signing up to see what’s going on once you have an account). By blending hundreds of known-ethnicity images, they came up with the two cool composites below.

Average Female FacesAverage Male Faces

And a Chinese view of “Kid Culture”

I love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic science fiction. The first-ever science fiction book I read, The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, told of a boy a billion years in the future who saves Earth from its final sociological decay. At age 10, I so wanted to be that boy. Curiously, I find much apocalyptica is not about the disaster, it’s about finding the hope at the end. It’s about surviving the ultimate “What if?” question.

For example, what would happen if a natural disaster killed off everyone over the age of thirteen? Oh, let the adults have 10 months of life to prepare their kids, but they know they’re going to die.

Supernova era cover
Click to view on AMZ

Adults are gone. What happens next? Cixin Liu asks exactly that question.His answer is both a little terrifying and a lot fascinating. We make so many assumptions about how society works and why it does. I find that Chinese science fiction typically comes from such a different angle that it forces me to start thinking about things afresh. (Want more? I can highly recommend Ken Liu’s two translated short story collections: Broken Stars and Invisible Planets. They’ll definitely shift your thinking.)

Cixin asks: What if industry and society and stability are no longer the watchwords that keep us moving ahead? What if excitement, adrenaline, and play take their place?

Far beyond the scope of the book, what am I doing to keep my view of the world fresh?

Until next time: Be Nerdy!

NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy Fridays #1: generals, boneyards, and autism

As if you didn’t know that I’m a major nerdboy (guy) by now. Anyway, I’m going to start posting some of my favorite nerdiness. No guarantees on how often, but it will be on Fridays to end your week with a good dose of quirky stuff I’ve learned, read, or just simply thought about. Some were in my books, some will be, and some are just cool.

The Death of an Iranian Quds General

This has been all over the news this week, but what is Quds? I learned a lot about them while researching Night Stalkers #4 (2013), Take Over at Midnight. They appeared only briefly and were only mentioned in one line, describing an earlier scene where our heroes escaped by the skin of their teeth:

General Rogers spoke over this piece of film. “This has been identified as an element of the newly formed Quds Unit 400. They were first reported in March 2012 as the top-secret Iranian Special Forces. They were formed to operate strictly overseas to carry out terror on extraterritorial targets. But here we see them operating within Iran against one of their own military plants.”

But what are they? The news calls them a part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. That’s like saying Delta Force is part of the Army.

Quds is Iran’s version of our Special Operations Command (SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, Special Warfare Schools, Night Stalkers, Marine Raiders, and a host of others). Within that there are what we in the US call our four Special Mission Units or Tier 1 assets: Delta, ST6, Combat Controllers, and a curious little intelligence agency sometimes called The Activity or The Army of Northern Virginia that I’ve written about in several places. Special Operations is Quds…kinda. And this is what the dead general commanded and was the mastermind in making it what it is today.

The “kinda” part of that is, among others, a weird little force called “Quds Unit 400” that I mentioned above. Special Operations Command has no equivalent…but the CIA does. Inside the CIA is the Special Activities Division. SAD is tasked with doing the really black ops—Quds is sort of half Special Mission Units and half SAD.

Then it gets interesting. Quds Unit 400, like the SAD, is mandated to deal with overseas operations [most of which the US would label as terrorist activities]). The true equivalent inside the CIA is the SOG (Special Operations Group). You need an assassination, or something really, really ugly done, we’d call on SOG and they’d call Unit 400. Both sides would say (have said) that it is the terrorism arm of the other.

The unique thing about General Soleimani was that he was involved from the highest level of command to on-the-ground organization (which is how the US found him outside his country). So, when I see they’ve taken out the Quds commanding general, I see the strategic genius—who has militarily created Iran as it is today—being killed. The ramifications? Only time will tell. But the inner workings of these agencies cost me about two days of research to find worthy adversaries for my Night Stalkers and write that one line above.


The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (formerly Center). Also known as the “Boneyard”, it’s one of the primary places that the US Military stores their old planes. They might be in temporary storage, or headed for destruction and recycling. In the high Arizona desert outside of Tucson at Davis-Monthan AFB, it is the largest collection of aircraft anywhere in the world. As of the December 2019 inventory, there are 3,262 of them.

That’s a lot of airplanes.

Is it any wonder that I keep playing with it. Robin, my heroine in Flash of Fire (Firehawks #4) grew up right there. It also keeps appearing in my new Miranda Chase series (which is about crashed planes, so sure).

AMARG Boneyard
Yes, all those plain brown areas with little dots on them are fields of planes. Click here to load this image in Google Maps. Fun to zoom in on.

Another fun thing to do is go and look at the actual current inventory of planes parked there.

Some are familiar: (107) B-52 bombers, (122) KC-135 aerial tankers (essentially a Boeing 707 turned into a gas pump, high time we replaced those), (86) Sikorsky Black Hawk and SeaHawk helicopters, (311) C-130 Hercules (in various model configurations)

Some are a bit less familiar: (23) Learjets and (7) Gulfstreams for VIP transport, (70) Predator drones (first generation stuff), and (2) Grumman TC-4C Academe (US military designation for a bombardier, navigator trainer (based on a Grumman Gulfstream 1) for the US Navy and Marine Corps, first flown in 1967. Aircraft were fitted with a Grumman A-6 Intruder nose radome, a simulated A-6 cockpit and four bombardier/navigator consoles for A-6 crew training, nine built.) So it’s a plane that’s pretending to be 5 other planes, which is kinda cool.

Some surprising: There are only (10) F-14 Tomcats left (Maverick’s Top Gun plane); they’ve been long since decommissioned from active service (since then we’ve already outdated and placed in storage (163) F-15s and (383) F-16snot making any Maverick fans feel old, am I?). (57) C-5A Galaxy (the second largest military transport in the world; granted these are an older model that could still be upgraded for later use if needed, but that’s a lot of a very big plane.) [This plane also figures prominently in my upcoming Miranda Chase origin story in the Origins of Honor anthology and less prominently in the upcoming Condor.]  And (18) B-1B Lancers (a really amazing, and huge, supersonic bomber).

And some just curious: (1) Ryan Firebee target drone, (1) 60-year-old helicopter, the VH-34 Choctaw, (5) Polish C-145A Skytrucks.

And to honor Miranda Chase’s favorite plane (featured in Drone and Thunderbolt), they still have (1) North American F-86F Sabrejet (the most manufactured fighter jet—ever—with over 10,000 built [most during the Korean War]).

If you want to really go down the rabbit hole with me on this, check out:

And here are some hints on where to find even more:

Currently Reading: “Neurotribes” by Steve Silberman

If you’re a layperson looking for an education in the field of autism, this is a startling read. My kid is a professional therapist, so I thought I had some understanding of this scourge that’s becoming so prevalent.

“On the Spectrum” is sort of the new watchword. Perfectly functional adults take aspects of their own personality (shyness, exceptional abilities to concentrate, easily overwhelmed by sensory overload, etc) and decide they’re “On the Spectrum.” (I’m not the right judge, having wondered about this myself, but reading Neurotribes I’d have to say…So Not!)

How to view something we know so little about. It has increased to beyond pandemic proportions in our population. Some of this is due to better diagnosis over the last 50 years since it was first recognized, but there is also a significant rise in occurrence.

Bottom line: scientists, the folks who really study this, have no idea what the cause is. It’s a whole series of disorders that are currently being swept up under the common umbrella of “The Spectrum”, without having common expression or any traceable source. Yet we have Neurotribes and Neurotypicals and…well, I’m still reading the book. (BTW, the whole “immunization causes autism” thing has been proven to be a disastrous fake news epidemic in its own right, dating well before the current US administration. It has been disproven so many times that it’s a great way to really tick off an autism researcher or therapist at a party. Just saying, don’t even go there.)

Thanks for joining in NerdGuy Fridays. Be sure to subscribe to this blog (below the comments (“Notify me of new posts by e-mail”) or near the top of the sidebar) to not miss another.

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