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The Straight Dope

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While scanning the shortwave radio bands recently, I discovered a station broadcasting five-digit numbers in Spanish. Each number was repeated twice before a new one was broadcast. It was a little strange, but I figured I had stumbled onto the Cuban Lotto numbers station. Then last night I picked up a similar broadcast in English. It lasted about 25 minutes, then ended abruptly. A fellow shortwave enthusiast says these "numbers stations" are a big mystery and may somehow be tied into the CIA or drug smuggling! The FCC and CIA were no help, so I turn to you. --Michael Pettersen, Chicago

Cecil usually hates to encourage conspiracy buffs, but in this case there doesn't seem to be much choice. There are dozens of "numbers stations," some of which have been in business for decades, yet no government or private agency has ever acknowledged them. The stations broadcast in a variety of formats (three, four, and five digits, etc) in languages ranging from English and Spanish to Czech, Korean, and Serbo-Croatian. The voice is often female and its unchanging inflection suggests that it may be machine-generated, like those wrong-number recordings used by the phone company.

One can reasonably assume that at least some of the numbers stations are broadcasting coded messages. The messages have a definite beginning and end, start with an indication of how many number groups the message will contain, repeat each group carefully, and use standard-sized code groups (i.e., four or five digits), a universal feature of modern cryptography. Finally, let's face it--lots of countries employ spies, they have to communicate with them somehow, and sometimes conventional methods are impractical. I'd be more surprised if there weren't secret broadcasts.

That said, nobody will admit to knowing: (1) exactly who's doing it; (2) whether private parties are involved (some suspect drug traffickers because so many messages are in Spanish); (3) whether a single agency is masterminding all the broadcasts (unlikely, in my opinion); (4) where the stations are located (because of atmospheric reflection, direction-finding is tough); (5) how many of the messages are real and how many are dummies intended to lull eavesdroppers; (6) who the intended recipients are (they can't all be Cuban agents in the U.S.); and, of course, (7) what the messages say.

Clearly the time has come for one of the Teeming Millions with time on his hands to get a job with the CIA, find out the whole story, and then betray the appropriate nation by giving us the secrets. (I'd do it, but I'm tied up this week.) If they catch you, of course, you'll probably get the chair, but hey, you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. For more details, see Big Secrets by William Poundstone (1983).

Why is there an I Street and a K Street but no J Street in Washington, D.C.? At least one other federally spawned burg, Anchorage, Alaska, uses a similar street-naming scheme also lacking J. My daughter claimed the streets were named before the invention of Js, but recanted that theory upon reaching junior high school. --John Beard, Arlington, Virginia

That's what she gets for going to junior high--her first guess was pretty close to the mark. J is a late addition to the alphabet, having initially been introduced as an alternative form of I. It began to be used to signify our modern consonant J around 1600, but the two letters continued to be used interchangeably for years thereafter, e.g., jngeniously, ieweller. As late as 1820 some dictionaries still weren't alphabetizing I and J words separately. D.C. planner Pierre L'Enfant undoubtedly didn't include a J Street because he considered I and J basically the same letter. (It certainly wasn't because he disliked the statesman John Jay, as legend has it.) A similar confusion attended the letters U and V, which were also used interchangeably. The D.C. plan included both U and V streets, but using capital V to indicate both U and V on buildings (e.g., VNITED STATES POST OFFICE) survived until the 1930s, no doubt partly out of imitation of such classical inscriptions as IVLIVS CAESAR.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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