Sunday, May 18, 2014

A numbers game

A while ago, I wrote about a few "things"--mysteries and former mysteries--that were inspirational to a writer of speculative words like myself. One of those things was "numbers stations": radio channels that went on the air occasionally and broadcast a seemingly random series of numbers, letters or words. Although it is widely assumed the stations are for spies doing spy things, nothing has ever been definitively proven. Fascinating!

Today I came across an interesting post on Kotaku that seemed to push the numbers stations into the 21st Century.

Thousands and thousands of videos, uploaded nearly every day. Each one is the same, structure-wise: 10 slides of shapes, shown over 11 seconds, over various random tones. Nobody has a clue what the videos are supposed to be, much less who is uploading them or why.

Just today, the channel has uploaded over a dozen bizarre videos.

Here's the idea. If you're reaching out to your espionage buddies, using the Internet--and a public corner of it, no less--broadens the scope of transmission to, well, the entire world. Here's what the YouTube videos look like:

Sure, sure, sure. It could be a completely innocent series of videos with no deeper meaning. But that's boring. Instead, let's assume it is a series of coded messages about something super-secret, super-important and super-awesome in some way. If nothing else, it's a super-intriguing jumping-off point for a great story.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The right stuff

Like any era, the current one has plenty of grumbling about "those damn kids" and about how "men were men" back in the day. It's always been that way. And so it was when Bill Dana, one of the most accomplished test pilots in world history, died last week. A common reaction was that when men were men, you see, people flew by the seat of their pants and didn't care about no namby-pamby rules.

But that's not the way it was at all.

Flight testing has always pushed the limits, and always will. Sometimes it seems like programs took more risks back in the '50s, '60s and '70s, and I think that's true to a certain extent. There were definitely more risks, but that was largely a function of where technology and science stood.

For instance, we know much more about how extremely high Mach-number flight works, have much better computer systems, and have satellites that enable communications anywhere, anytime. The result? We didn't strap a man onto the top of an ICBM and send him hurtling downrange at Mach 20 in DARPA's Falcon program. That's good, because...

In short, we are pushing into more dangerous flight regimes than ever before, and can gather data without putting a person at risk. That's not a bad thing.

More to the point, though, guys like Dana didn't fly by the seat of their pants. He was an engineer with a master's degree who pushed aircraft as far as he could, and could analyze and explain what worked and what didn't.

Good flying leads to good photo ops (that's Dana in the foreground).

So what is the right stuff, which Tom Wolfe wrote about and Dana more or less embodied? It's knowing how to fly, sure. It's having the courage to push the aircraft. But it's also being smart enough to understand why it's happening (and why to follow the namby-pamby rules). And fortunately those qualities are still here in the 21st Century.