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Posted
12 January 2006

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Working The Numbers

Cover for the Conet Project CDMixing topics is apparently one of the top ten design mistakes of weblogs, but I just can't help myself. So if you'll (continue to) indulge me...

A couple of days ago I found myself updating a wikipedia entry for a topic that I know very little about: Numbers Stations.

These are shortwave radio transmissions that are, according to best guesses, used for communicating messages to espionage agents in the field. They consist of tones and music, but often simply voices reciting sequences of numbers. The idea is that the numbers correspond to a one-time pad, which the agent in the field uses to look up the pre-agreed (and secret obviously) message text.

Being only recently new to the world of numbers stations I haven't heard any directly myself. However a few years ago there was a 4 CD set of numbers station recordings released called the Conet Project (pictured). The hopefully legal MP3s are available.

Have a listen to some of the transmissions, I find them quite compelling. They are at once spooky (groan), slightly disturbing, and highly evocative of the world of the deep cover agent.

It's no wonder that musicians have been inspired by numbers stations, and that's how I found out about them. I have been a fan of the equally mysterious artists Boards of Canada for a while now, and according to the unofficial BoC resource pages the Scottish duo were inspired by numbers stations from an early age. If you're not a BoC fan and you like analogue-heavy electronic music inspired in equal parts by nature and maths, give them a listen. If you are a fan, get over to Fredd-E's resource page which has lots of background material to help understand the tracks (and now also has RSS feeds at the suggestion of some nerd).

Numbers stations are also referenced in the TV series Lost. If you've seen the show you'll probably appreciate why. This show also gets the girtby seal of approval, despite it suffering from the X-Files syndrome of irritating the viewers with a perpetually imminent revelation of the Big Secret. Although the Lost plot does move forward, it is at times frustratingly slow, particularly in the middle of the series. But despite this, and the unintentionally hilarious Australian accents, it was still one of the best shows on television last year.

So there you have it, mysterious broadcasts and two popular culture recommendations. Makes a change from user interface disasters, anyway.

3 Comments

Posted by
marxy
2006-01-12 22:35:12 -0600
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What a tease, all the way through that post I thought you were going to reveal in what way you corrected or improved the Wikipedia item on Numbers stations but, alas, the plot moved slowly and then drifted off.

I guess Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass, used sometimes on the Australian Science show, might be inspired by these stations?


Posted by
alastair
2006-01-12 22:35:12 -0600
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Well my own contribution to wikipedia was quite modest, and not worth highlighting, but you can find it fairly easily.

To be honest I've never listened to EotB - maybe that can be your own contribution to wikipedia?


Posted by
Dave
2006-01-12 22:35:12 -0600
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"Mixing topics is apparently one of the top ten design mistakes of weblogs, but I just can’t help myself. So if you’ll (continue to) indulge me…"

This made me laugh because I was just reading Ben Barren's blog. Note the crafty editorial mashup of celebrity + web 2.0 commentary :)