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P for Phones (cross-post from P Series Talk)

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DVD Smith
1269376.  Wed Jan 03, 2018 10:33 pm Reply with quote

What happens if you use a mobile phone in a petrol station? Nothing, other than probably getting a telling-off from the forecourt manager. [Klaxon: It causes an explosion/fire.]

A 2005 paper by Dr Adam Burgess of the University of Kent [1] reported a BP study of 243 petrol station fires across the world, and found that not a single one could be attributed to mobile phones. [2] In fact, most of them could be explained by static electricity, where the driver has got back into the car, rubbed against the upholstery and then gone back to the petrol pump with their clothes all charged up, causing a spark and ignition. [3]

Fires at petrol stations occur much more frequently in the USA than they do in the UK. There are a couple of reasons for this. The main reason is that in the US "latching" is allowed, where the pump handle can be clipped into place and left in the filler cap, allowing drivers to return to their cars while the car is being refuelled. Another reason is that (as of the time of the Burgess paper) American gasoline doesn't have any anti-static additives to it. In one of the rare documented examples of a static fire at a petrol station in the UK, the victim was wearing a nylon shirt. [1]

Mythbusters also tested this theory and came to the same conclusion - mobile phones won't cause a petrol station fire but static electricity definitely could. They interview an American petroleum expert in this video ([4]) who goes into the exact science behind static ignition at petrol stations.

In fact, the only real reason given why phones shouldn't be used in petrol stations is to avoid people getting distracted while refuelling their cars. Despite the myth being debunked as far back as 2003, as of 2017 the UK Petroleum Industry Association still cite potential incineration as one of their reasons for forbidding phone usage at petrol stations. [5]

(As an aside, Dr Burgess's 2005 paper also reports that in 2004 there were 42 reported incidents of cars being driven into BP petrol stations in the USA while already on fire.) [1]

How did the presidents of the USA and Russia speak to each other during the Cold War? Through encoded text messages sent to and from the Pentagon. [Klaxon: Through red telephones each had on their desk.]

(Sources for the majority of the following info, unlesss specified: [6][7][8][9][10])

It is a common trope in several films and TV shows that during the Cold War, the leaders of the USA and Russia each had a red telephone on their desk through which they could directly communicate. In reality this "red telephone" never existed - the two countries communicated through secure teletype from 1963, then fax from 1986, then finally email from 2008. The US transmissions were always sent from the Pentagon, never from the White House desk. According to one US Army translator, the idea of the "red phone" may have come from the Pentagon, where one general had on his desk a red telephone through which he had a direct connection to the White House - an account seemingly backed up by this blog, which states that red phones were used in the early days for internal communications rather than international communications.

The link wasn't completely direct either; it used the very first TransAtlantic Cable (TAT-1), which connected Washington to Moscow via London, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. The London portion ran through the "Kingsway Tunnels" (or "BT Tunnels"), built during WW2 to serve as bomb shelters and military headquarters.[11] The connection was cryptographically secure but at times the actual physical cable was not; it was reportedly severed twice by bulldozers, driven by farmers in Denmark and Finland respectively, while it was once knocked out of action by a fire down a manhole in Baltimore. [12] Luckily, they also had a backup line via Tangier in Morocco.

The first message sent along the line was from the US to Russia, on August 30 1963, and read "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy's dog's back 1234567890." (This is called a pangram - see my Peculiar Palabras thread in the P Series forum.) The Soviets' first message was rather more poetic, sending a description of the sunset in Moscow. Test messages were then sent through the system every hour, alternating in origin from Washington and then Moscow. (This practice continues to this day.)

To minimise the potential for misunderstandings, the communications were always done electronically and never verbally, with each side sending the transmission in their own language. Both sides each had encoding machines in the Latin alphabet (for English) and the Cyrillic alphabet (for Russian). These were made for both countries by a company in neutral Norway, to minimise the risk of sabotage by either side.

Despite the non-existence of the red phone, the press still use the phrase "red phone" when the presidents communicate via the secure line. [13][14]


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