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  23/07/07 Running numbers  
In the absence of anything current or relevant to talk about today, I'm going to fall back on my usual backup plan of talking, a little too obsessively, about a subject that interests me. And the subject I have chosen today is something that manages to be both genuinely eerie, yet reassuringly nerdy: the world of Numbers Stations.

The phenomenon of Numbers Stations is something that you may have observed if you have access to a shortwave radio. In amongst the French football commentaries, Scandinavian folk music and shrieking religious zealots, you might just pick up something quite otherworldly. Strings of numbers, recited in a variety of languages by (usually mechanised) male or female voices. They appear from nowhere, sometimes accompanied by a call-sign or a distinct piece of music, and then disappear into the static when the message is done.

And this is no urban legend: a plethora of recordings exists, and dedicated nerds all over the world are constantly monitoring these broadcasts, to the extent that broadcast schedules are widely available on the net. Each 'station' has its own characteristics: some use numbers, others use the phonetic alphabet, while another subset eschew voices altogether in favour of Morse code.

As for what they are: well, it's generally accepted nowadays that these are spy transmissions, intended for undercover agents, which can only be decoded using a one-time pad. As such, we can't really hope to extract any meaning from the transmissions, a fact that most enthusiasts seem to accept quite readily. As for myself, I've managed to hear two different transmissions (with significant help from my considerably more radio-savvy dad). One of these seemed to be the E10 phonetic alphabet station, generally believed to be operated by Mossad, and I've yet to identify the other one.

It really is an interest that's simultaneously esoteric and chilling. Strange, soulless, disembodied voices of ambiguous gender, barking out strings of impenetrable data... it's an unsettling mixture of the mundane and the alien. It's even inspired an edition of Dinosaur Comics (in fact, I originally discovered Dinosaur Comics via the Wikipedia article on Numbers Stations... although they've since deleted the link. The twats).
     
 
  Yeah, well, you can prove anything with facts.  
© George Hutcheon 2007

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