Tuesday, August 28, 2007

28 August 2007: Leaving

Took a big step today: resigned from my job at the university.

The reasons are fairly clear-cut. We're looking to move to the USA, and have submitted a visa application to get me over there as the spouse of a US citizen. We had initially planned on doing this much earlier, as soon as my PhD finished back in September, but that dragged on a bit. Then we thought we might be staying a little longer. But now we've made the decision to go, and despite the lengthy visa application process (it takes months, literally, although once you get an interview date from them it all moves very quickly), we are getting ready to go, initially to Texas, thence to wherever the right job takes us.

In fact, the visa application process has been underway for a while now. So why the decision to resign today (technically, yesterday)? Well, readers with computers who can click here will know that back in October last year I spent a month doing some consultancy work for an unnamed company. A similar offer emerged at the end of last week, with the remuneration for the five-week contract exceeding the salary I would get were I to remain at the university to the end of December. Since we're looking to go to the US anyway as soon as we can (and don't get me started on tax laws, which we're currently investigating after a tip-off from McDougal), it made sense for me to write my 'with regret' letter.

And it is with regret. When I leave after my notice period it will be four years, almost to the day, since I began work as a full-time PhD student with a computerless desk, a vague notion of the semantic web and no idea at all what an RDQL query was. Now I've got a computer on the desk, I've completed a PhD applying semantic web science to the digital library metadata and RDQL has become SPARQL. I've learned a lot, written papers, presented talks, taught students, even performed a little research along the way. And now, with the clean break of the USA move becoming imminent (and a little more about the visa process to follow in another blog, I feel...), it's time to move on.

Arouna from the other end of the level 4 lab is thinking of organising a farewell five-a-side testimonial for me (and possibly him, depending on what he decides to do when his contract is up next month). I wonder if they have much five-a-side in Texas?

Postscript: My leaving Southampton makes my blog title even more decoupled from reality. Any suggestions for an alternative title?

Friday, August 10, 2007

10 August 2007: The Luminous Flesh Of Giants

Once every four years I buy a new novel.

It used to be more often than that. Around the time of doing my A-Levels I actually bought and read no less than four novels in one year. This wasn't to do with a voracious literary appetite so much as curiosity into writing styles: how do different authors, in different contexts, for different audiences, tell a story? Turned out Emily Bronte, Alice Walker and Vikram Seth had a lot in common (English language, use of chapters, freeform movement between first and third person). The fourth was also similar in these respects, although the only reason I bought it was because I had a train journey and this book had a shiny, attention-seeking cover.

I spotted it, in October 1994, in Waterstones here in Southampton. A paperback, there were a small pile of them on the floor section of a black IKEA-style cuboid shelf unit in the middle of the basement room. It jumped out at me because of the unusual colours, the cool (even I could tell it was cool) use of sunglasses reflecting San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge in the hand-drawn artwork, and the fact that although it was clearly 'sci-fi' in loose terms (and I hadn't read one of those yet that year), I'd heard neither of the book nor its author.

The book was called 'Virtual Light', the author one William Gibson.

So, I bought it out of curiosity, mainly because of that cover. Even the tagline "Author of Neuromancer" made me curious: I hadn't heard of that either, but obviously it sounded like I should. And so I walked through the rain and under rapidly darkening skies down to the station, hopped on the train to Plymouth (requiring change at Westbury and costing no less than forty-nine pounds, and this in 1994, remember) and started to read.

The first chapter of Virtual Light remains the single most baffling piece of writing I've ever come across, and that includes all those bizarre Description Logic papers with upside-down A's I had to read for my PhD:

The courier presses his forehead against layers of glass, argon, high-impact plastic. He watches a gunship traverse the city's middle distance like a hunting wasp, death slung beneath its thorax in a smooth black pod. Hours earlier, missiles have fallen in a northern suburb; seventy-three dead, the kill as yet unclaimed. But here the mirrored ziggurats down Lozaro Cordenas flow with the luminous flesh of giants, shunting out the night's barrage of dreams to the waiting avenidas-business as usual, world without end.

The air beyond the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence. Fine dry flakes of fecal snow, billowing in from the sewage flats, have lodged in the lens of night. Closing his eyes, he centers himself in the background hiss of climate-control. He imagines himself in Tokyo, this room in some new wing of the old Imperial. He sees himself in the streets of Chiyoda-ku, beneath the sighing trains. Red paper lanterns line a narrow lane.

He opens his eyes.

Mexico City is still there.

And so it went on, the following paragraphs of that opening chapter equally baffling and yet somehow lyrical in their technical descriptiveness. Fortunately, the second chapter and those that followed made more sense, and now, some thirteen years on and having re-read Virtual Light countless times, I can pretty much understand of most of that opening sequence, although for 'faint hepatic corona' I still just read 'yellow glow'.

So this was Gibson's latest, at that time, newly released in paperback and, I discovered, his first novel not to be part of the 'Sprawl' series, of which the aforementioned 'Neuromancer' was the first. For whatever reason, I didn't rush to pick up the Sprawl series, nor indeed did I think about Gibson again until three years later when I saw a new paperback named 'Idoru' for sale, and read it on a train journey, this time from London to Plymouth, and was happy to note some of the same characters appearing.

Then it sped up a bit. Two years after that, in 1999, waiting at an airport in Los Angeles for a very delayed flight back to Blightly, I thought I'd better read Neuromancer (and enjoyed it, although I preferred the world of Virtual Light), then later in 1999 I spotted and purchased (in hardback this time) another new Gibson (All Tomorrow's Parties), which turned out to be the final (and lightest, in terms of both plot and prose, and thus more accessible) book in the Virtual Light series. Over the following couple of years I made my way through the remainder of the Sprawl series (Count Zero comfortably being the best of the three in my opinion, although clearly not as groundbreaking as Neuromancer), and the short-story collection 'Burning Chrome and other stories' which was like eating Gibson sandwiches for lunch instead of a huge evening meal that you had to spend a week digesting: you got all the goodness with less of the effort, and Burning Chrome remains, possibly, my favourite Gibson product. And that was that, the back catalogue dealt with.

2003 came round, and with it the next 'new novel' (at which point I realised he was producing them every four years). By this point I was plugged (a little, at least) into the online Gibson fan forum, and thus discovered that, to compensate for the new novel (Pattern Recognition - the first novel he's written that's set in the present day) being published in the UK some five months after its release elsewhere in the world, there was an official launch happening in Russell Square, with Gibson reading, answering questions and signing books. Naturally I went along, got his rather-too-printed signature in my copy, asked when he'd write more short stories ("when they come along," he replied, "although they don't pay the mortgage like a novel does").

Like he still has a mortgage after all the money I've paid for his books, I thought.

And that, then, was it for another four years (give or take the Relevant Experiment, conducted by Gibson fans and mildly Gibsonian in nature), until Spook Country came out last week. I finished it last night (four years wait for three days of reading: something's wrong with this equation, although I will re-read and re-read again numerous times for the sheer enjoyment of the prose) and will probably blog about it sometime (let's just say it makes me want to head down to Dock Gate 20 and drill holes in some of those containers). But it made me think back to whatever it was that got me started on the Gibson journey, and all I can trace it back to is that front cover, flourescing up at me from near the floor of Waterstones' basement level, beckoning me into Gibson's densely-worded universe of long-chain monomers, that new car smell, wolfishly professorial assassins and that faint hepatic corona.

Postscript: Wow, all that without mentioning stuff like cyberpunk, Johnny Mnemonic, Keanu Reeves, The Matrix ("the unpaid bill" according to Gibson) and the fact Gibson invented the word 'cyberspace', and envisioned what it meant, quite a number of years before Sir Tim invented the Web.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

7 August 2007: Facts

As I begin to squeeze my way between the surprisingly dense prose of Mr Gibsons's spy-related latest publication, McDougal points out that governments are notoriously bad at keeping secrets and that civil servants are notoriously bad at doing anything at all. Which leads me to consider the question: why do I (and others) conclude that these 'numbers stations' are, in fact, government-operated or at least government-driven?

To answer this question, we need to consider the known facts and then the circumstantial evidence.

FACT 1: These stations do exist, and have existed for some decades.
- A fact, incidentally, that is neither confirmed nor denied by any government: they do not acknowledge the existence of these stations. However, they clearly do exist, and from this we determine that somebody, somewhere is wanting to broadcast them and somebody, somewhere is wanting to receive these broadcasts; the broadcasts are spread widely enough over geography and history that they cannot be a single hoax.

FACT 2: These stations are illegal.
- The international airwaves are governed by a surprisingly strict set of global regulations requiring registrations, call-signs, identification etc at regular intervals. Pirate radio is not only frowned upon, it is hunted down and taken off the air. These stations are unregistered and do not meet on-air identification requirements. Meaning that, at the very least, governments and radio enforcement bodies will have investigated them if they're not running them themselves, leading to the third fact...

FACT 3: Governments do know what they are and why they are there
- Even if these are rogue pirate broadcasts or a massive global inter-generational hoax, they will have been investigated by governments and radio authorities who will, provided the broadcasts originate from this planet, find out what they are, why they're there and (for whatever reason) let them carry on. So when in the 1998 Telegraph article the government official said "they are what you think they are", he said that because he was in a position to say that: he was able to make a statement concerning the nature of these stations.

The we get to conjecture, and although some of it is very strong, it can't be established as sheer fact, but provides major circumstantial evidence:
  • These stations broadcast what you'd expect a spy-station to broadcast. One-time pads are a known, established feature of international espionage, and this is what you'd send to people with one-time pads. A whole bunch of numbers. It's how they work.
  • The government response is exactly what you'd expect too. NCND ("neither confirm nor deny") is the normal response to any questions about MI6, CIA or anything else. Governments consistently neither confirm nor deny even the existence of these stations, which is pretty crazy considering fact number one. But that's exactly what you'd expect.
  • The stations are deliberately, cleverly enigmatic: the Lincolnshire Poacher broadcasts the same way every single day, 200 five-number sets, whether there's nothing going on in the world or whether it's 9/11. Always the same, no reference to human events other than the invention of numbers and short-wave broadcasting. Even within the code, who's to say which bits are dummy and which bits are genuine? It's even more complex than a baseball manager relaying signals. ("Hit - the - ball"). This stuff is smart, and is very very careful not to give even a single clue.
And then beyond that there's the small evidence that does leak out from time to time - Radio Havana sometimes being relayed on 'Atencion'; jamming signals traceable to 'enemy' regimes; signals themselves traceable by directional finders to, for example, that RAF base in Cyprus; not to mention the major drop-off in stations since the end of the Cold War. And as I discovered yesterday, many overseas BBC employees are actually not BBC employees at all but technically work for the Foreign Office, a spill-over from the BBC initially being a state broadcasting service. Put all this together with the facts as stated above and it's pretty clear what we're talking about.

I guess it's just safe to say that it's not your normal government department civil servant who works for MI6. I'd put money on them not using Stellent, or if they do, they use it really really well.

Now, back to Gibson's book, wonder if there'll be any Cuban number stations broadcasting to Tito and Alejandro?

one, nine, five, eight, six!
three, five, five, seven, nine!

Monday, August 06, 2007

6 August 2007: Spooks

In advance of William Gibson's new novel "Spook Country", official release date tomorrow, I inadvertently slipped around to thinking about the spying game last weekend.

In particular, I remembered something I heard Danny Kelly tell Danny Baker once on a football phone-in (of all places) - something like:
DK: Aah, the secret bells and numbers. Just like shortwave radio. 'Our hen has laid one egg'.
DB: What are you talking about?
DK: You know those weird noises and radio stations you hear after dark on medium wave or short wave, like ringing bells or people reading out lists of numbers?
DB: I always thought that was the national lottery.
DK: No, it's government spies, all sending messages to each other.
DB: Seriously? It's spies?
DK: Yeah, it's the governments sending out covert messages to their agents. Probably telling them why Graeme Le Saux shouldn't be playing for England.

OK, so that dates it as being circa 1998, and forgive me if the exact words are incorrect. But it stuck in my brain.

So Saturday night, in advance of the Gibson book and still feeling a little bit ill after eating rather too much tandoori chicken a couple of days before, I went online to see what I could see about these mystical spy radio stations. Naturally, I started at Wikipedia, since it knows everything about everything. There I found a curiously uncertain page about 'number stations', putting suggestions forward as conjecture explanations for these mystical short-wave number-reading stations, rather than stating as fact in normal wikipedia fashion. From this I garnered one important fact: we don't actually know what they are, but from occasional media slips, court cases and directional receiving equipment, we do have a pretty good idea.

During the Cold War, and to a lesser extent since, spies were placed in 'enemy' countries and given little books of coded numbers called 'one-time pads'. These code-books, to be used once, are a mathematically-proven uncrackable way to pass encrypted information (although you can have a go if you want), and so to communicate with their agents in the field, all the government has to do is send a whole bunch of numbers, usually grouped in sets of five, and it does this via these unlicensed, technically illegal, shortwave radio stations.

Naturally, a spod group (sorry, group of curious enthusiasts) formed around these mystical semi-broadcasters and for over forty years people have been tracking these stations, recording their frequency changes, trying to decrypt the headers (the messages themselves are uncrackable, but the first part of the message, saying which agent the message is for and occasionally other information, is marginally more accessible, although largely meaningless), and more interestingly trying to figure out just who is doing the broadcasting.

The best-known station is one named the 'Lincolnshire Poacher', so-called because it begins every broadcast with a few bars of the eponymous English folk-song. If that weren't a hint enough as to the country of origin (the language and accent, incidentally, is often English, even for Soviet or Eastern Bloc stations), those clever spods with their directional receivers actually traced the signals to a UK-run RAF base in Cyprus. Oops. The BBC, bless them, deny all knowledge of anything at all (they once said a numbers station was "nothing more sinister than the snowfall figures for the ski slopes". Uh-huh.) but BFBS, the British Forces Broadcaster, did on once occasion acknowledge the existence of broadcasts from their systems, and noted the frequency was 'lent' to them by the BBC. Domestically, the BBC occasionally discuss the phenomena (aside from Baker and Kelly), but stop well short of stating the pretty-well-accepted explanation of what they are, why they're there and certainly whether the BBC Overseas Dept has anything to do with it.

Of course, plenty of other such stations exist, although not in the same numbers as during the Cold War era. Cuba still runs the 'Atencion' stations (hilariously sometimes featuring snippets of Radio Havana broadcasts when somebody plugs the wrong cable in) and the former Eastern Bloc countries, notably the Czech Republic, seem pretty heavy users of the system. The US runs a few, Russia seems to run quite a number and China has recently added a few stations from what the tracking pages tell us. If you really want to know more, you can sign up for the "Numbers and Oddities Newsletter", a monthly round-up of number lists from spods all over the world, or even download 4 CDs of recorded number stations (oo, that'll knock Timbaland off the number one spot).

So, before going to bed on Saturday I flicked the radio from its normal (if little used) position of Five Live over to shortwave and tried to see what I could find. Through all the different bands... lots of Indian music... some bizarre Euro-trance beat-heavy stuff... "This is Radio China International... " "And now, with his defence of the Catholic Faith..." "... broadcasting from Prague with the latest news ..." dit-dit-deet-dit-deet-deet (mildly promising) ... "... to do in Beijing this weekend... "

But no numbers. Maybe it was the wrong time of day, although the reports are that the stations seem to mainly start on the hour of half-hour, and I was listening at exactly midnight BST. Still, it helped me get to sleep better than NyQuil, and that's mainly what I needed.

So, that was my Gibson Preparation Exercise. Now online this morning, checking up on tomorrow's launch date.... to discover that 7th August is the US launch date for the book. The UK launch date is 2nd August. Yes, Gibsonians, we know what that means: the book is ALREADY OUT!


So I'm going to sign off at that point and head off to Waterstones before they run out. Wonder if it will out-sell 'Harry Potter and the Pointless Sequel' or whatever it's called?

Postscript: Different astonishment from Blogger's spell-checker: for some reason it actually does recognise 'NyQuil' as a word. Is there some sponsorship going on that I don't know about?