Gareth's post yesterday about the mysterious shortwave numbers stations used by spies to communicate happily reminded me of this article I wrote for bOING bOING Digital back in 1999 about the Conet Project, a legendary compilation of numbers station broadcasts produced by Irdial-Discs! Of course, this piece was written before Irdial-Discs sued the band Wilco for using a sample from the Conet Project recordings on their 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. From bOING bOING Digital:
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Twisting the dial of your shortwave radio, you come across the most "experimental" sounding station you've ever heard. A glockenspiel tune is followed by the voice of a little girl speaking numbers and letters in what sounds like a random order. Performance art? No, the message inside the madness just wasn't meant for you. Perhaps its intended for the ears of a CIA agent. Or KGB. Or MOSSAD. You've stumbled across a Numbers Station.
"Shortwave Numbers Stations are a perfect method of anonymous, one way communication--spies located anywhere in the world can be communicated to by their masters via small, locally available, and unmodified Shortwave receivers," reads the Web site of The Conet Project, an outfit that's compiled 150 Numbers Stations recordings from the last three decades on a four CD set. (The word "Conet" is the sign-off signal on one station.)
Is this spy stuff true or not? Well, a rare mainstream media article about Numbers Stations published in the Daily Telegraph last year quoted a spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry, responsible for regulating the airwaves in the UK: "These (Numbers Stations) are what you suppose they are.
Phil Torrone from Adafruit writes, "A million internet years ago in 2008 when I was Senior Editor at MAKE Magazine, Ladyada and I went to DC Comics to meet the MAD Magazine folks for a collaboration issue with MAKE and MAD, it was the Spy vs Spy issue, volume 16 cover by Sam Viviano. Spy vs. Spy is a wordless black and white comic strip that has been published in Mad magazine since 1961. It was created by Antonio Prohias, a Cuban national who fled to the United States in 1960 days before Fidel Castro took over the Cuban free press."
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The Shadow Brokers, a previously unknown hacker group, has announced that it has stolen a trove of ready-to-use cyber weapons from The Equation Group (previously), an advanced cyberweapons dealer believed to be operating on behalf of, or within, the NSA. Read the rest
As a kid, my two favorite things in Mad magazine were the Fold-In and Spy vs Spy (which I pronounced "spyvisspy"). It was a wordless one-page comic about two oddly pointy faced spies, one dressed in black and the other dressed in white. Other than their different colored outfits, they behaved identically. They hated each other and created elaborate Rube Goldberg type machines to try to kill each other. Sometimes their machines worked, often, they’d backfire. They were tricky but usually too clever for their own good.
Atlas Obscura has an excellent article about Antonio Prohías, the creator of Spy vs Spy.
In New York, Prohías took work in a factory during the day, while working up his illustration portfolio at night. Taking inspiration from his supposed spy status, Prohías altered the look of El Hombre Siniestro, and gave him a counterpart, creating what we now know as Spy vs. Spy. In 1960, just months after moving to the city, Prohías, along with his daughter Marta who acted as an interpreter, walked unannounced into the offices of MAD Magazine. The editors were skeptical of the artist, but his silly spy gags won them over, and he had sold three of the strips to the magazine before leaving that day.
Spy Vs Spy: An Explosive Celebration, by Antonio Prohías and Peter Kuper, is an excellent book about Spy Vs Spy, with lots of sample strips. Read the rest