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Smoking gnu

The Smoking Gnu were a trio of Clacks crackers; much like Roundworld computer hackers.

In the old days of the Clacks, when the Dearheart family still owned the Grand Trunk, the nature of the job of Clack Tower Operator tended to attract loners and misfits who wanted to get away from the troubles of society. Many workers in the lonely outposts collapsed under the stress of long shifts of intense concentration in the swaying towers and the problem was compounded when the Dearhearts were swindled out of their company by Reacher Gilt and his cronies at which point the company laid staff off, made the rest work longer shifts and neglected proper maintenance to the point where there were regular fatalities at every tower. Some of those men (and they were all men, in the early days - women would follow, but missed the worst), who left the towers were men who ordinary madmen called mad. Their madness took various forms, some were dangerous to themselves, some to society, some only to very specific and quite rational targets. Later when the Dearheart family lost the Grand Trunk to Reacher Gilt and his cronies, the operators became boys and girls because the company didn't have to pay them much if at all - very like the fast food industry in Roundworld.

An attempt was made by the son of the founder, John Dearheart, to set up a competing service called the New Trunk but it failed, as a result of his murder by Reacher Gilt's hired assassin, Mr. Gryle. After his death, some of his engineers wanted to continue their work in secrecy and two of these "misfits", known as "Mad Al" Winton and "Sane Alex" Carlton, used their skill and experience against the Grand Trunk Semaphore Company to devise ways of introducing damaging messages into the system. The two were very like the Odd Couple; Al the free spirit surrounded by clutter and Alex the anal-compulsive. "Mad" Al was not obviously madder than "Sane" Alex; in fact Al tended to be the leader and spokesman. The duo acquired an expelled (through the chimney) student Alchemist called "Undecided Adrian" Emery (who was no madder than the average Alchemist but appeared to have been undecided as to which category he fit into). Together they formed the Smoking Gnu; Al and Alex devising code and stratagems for "cracking" the system while Adrian created new hardware to assist them as well as to improve future clacks technology. They set up their base and tower on top of the old Post Office and paid rent to Mr. Groat since the Post Office was non-functional. When Moist discovered them he decided to use their expertise to bring down the Board of the Grand Trunk, initially by using a packet of code called the Woodpecker which would have destroyed many of the chain of towers, but ultimately he decided instead to use a different approach; a "neutron bomb" which would destroy the corrupt company but leave the towers standing. The Smoking Gnu took over an abandoned Clack tower midway between two clacks towers and used a giant screen to block the signal from the one tower from reaching the second tower. Then they sent their own message on to the unsuspecting second tower which sent it down the line and ultimately exposed Reacher Gilt and his board for the crooks and murderers they were.

The Smoking Gnu likely chose their name in honour of the departed John Dearheart, whose name had been kept on the air ever since his death. The code GNU on a clacks message would mean it was passed on to every tower (the G code), turned around at the end of the line so that any towers that missed it the first time, got it the second time (The U code), and that it was not logged (The N code). In the Roundworld, GNU is also a recursive acronym for "GNU's Not Unix" and the GNU Project is an ongoing effort to develop a free operating system compatible with commercial Unix. The GNU Project is heavily associated with hacker culture whose philosophies tend to be counter to monopolistic business practices.

The name of the group is an obvious reference to the term "the smoking gun" - a name used in many conspiracy theories real and imagined. It was the name given to the tape of the Watergate break-in and was used in the "cover up" of the Kennedy's assassination It is also a reference to the Lone Gunmen, a trio of hackers from The X-Files and later on in their own TV series two of whom were "hackers" and the third an ex employee of the FCC. (The X-Files Lone Gunmen are in turn a reference to the Kennedy assassination which Pratchett has used himself in other works).

The Woodpecker likely refers to the Russian Woodpecker or Duga Radar array system for early warning of incoming ballistic missiles from the west (like NORAD's DEW line) Its disruptive ratatattat on certain wave bands meant that some receivers included a woodpecker exclusion device to block the signal.

When the Smoking Gnus discuss their planned sabotage they say, "'Did you spot how the swage armature can be made to jump off the elliptical bearing if you hit the letter K and then send it to a tower with an address higher than yours but only if you hit the letter Q first and the drum spring is fully wound?'"– In the Roundworld, certain early (and some current) computer systems could be made to fail in similar ways. Unlikely character strings can sometimes, be interpreted as system codes in binary and cause security breaches or outright system failures. In addition, early mechanical typewriters could lock up if a skilled and fast typist typed too quickly. The QWERTY keyboard was supposedly designed to make lockup less likely by placing certain commonly used letters where weaker fingers would be the ones typing them, like "a" or by making the same finger type common letters such as "e" and "d" or "r" and t". Similarly the keys arms for combinations such as "sh" and "th" were not placed close together. This slowed the fast typist down to a pace that the mechanical keys could respond to. This theory has recently been called into question with the suggestion that the keyboard layout had more to do with what worked for best telegraph operators than for speedy typists. Either analogy ties in to the Clacks in Going Postal.


"Mad Al" Winton

"Sane Alex" Carlton

"Undecided Adrian" Emery