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5 Restaurants Where Spy Games Were Played

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Restaurants are ideal places for spies to ply their trade, as there’s plenty of ambient noise, a nice crowd to throw things off, and food to go around, which tends to alleviate stress. Here are five restaurants where tradecraft was the daily special.

1. Au Pied de Cochon, Georgetown


Vitaly Yurchenko was a 25-year veteran of the KGB who defected to the United States in 1985. It was quite a coup for the CIA—he was the fifth-highest ranking Soviet spymaster at the time, and the Kremlin was terrified at what he might reveal. Then he disappeared. Then he reappeared in the Soviet Union and was eventually given an Order of the Red Star.

So what happened? Because he was such an important figure, he had a CIA escort at all times. He and his American counterpart were having dinner at Au Pied de Cochon in Georgetown. According to Time, Yurchenko asked his guard, “What would you do if I got up and walked out? Would you shoot me?” The CIA man said, “No, we don't treat defectors that way.” Yurchenko replied, “I'll be back in fifteen or twenty minutes. If I'm not, it will not be your fault.”

He didn’t come back.

He excused himself to the restroom, climbed out a window, and bolted for the Soviet Embassy. The KGB proceeded to drug and interrogate him to make sure he wasn’t a double agent, and when he passed muster, the Soviets held a press conference and had a great time mocking the United States. There are a lot of theories about why, exactly, he defected and redefected. Maybe he was crazy. Maybe it was a love affair gone wrong. Maybe he was tired of the CIA following him around.

Today, the former spymaster is a security guard at a bank in Moscow; the Soviet Union collapsed and dissolved into fifteen states. And Au Pied de Cochon is a Five Guys hamburger joint.

2. Chadwicks, Georgetown

Some people go to Chadwicks for the burgers. Some go for the beer. Some go for—as Chadwicks itself proclaims—“casual dining at its very best.” CIA case officer Aldrich Ames went to destroy U.S. operations in the Soviet Union.

On June 13, 1985, Ames met with Viktor Cherkashin, the Soviet chief of counterintelligence at the Soviet embassy in Washington. As Cherkashin recounted in his memoir, “Intelligence officers might think they’re chiefly responsible for recruiting agents, but most of the work really consists of finding people who want to be recruited.” After careful prodding, it was clear that Ames was just such a man. He had financial problems and an ax to grind, and though he claimed to abhor communism, he admitted a respect for the Soviet Union. “Then began the second chapter in Ames’s spy career. He hesitated, then took out a notepad and paper and began writing down a list of names.”

Aldrich Ames revealed the identities of more than one hundred CIA agents in the Soviet Union. In the weeks and months that followed, when the agents started disappearing, the “fifth floor” at Langley grew alarmed. Then the executions began. Ames’s price was $4.6 million, and his actions were the single most devastating compromise in CIA history. He was caught after buying a half-million-dollar house in cash, driving to work in a Jaguar, and wearing tailored suits—while supposedly living on a $60,000/year salary.

Meanwhile, Viktor Cherkashin was just getting started. He later turned Robert Hanssen, who would become the worst compromise in FBI history.

3. Aragvi Restaurant, Moscow

Pyotr Semyonovich Popov was a master spy and member of the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye (GRU), the intelligence branch of the Soviet military. He came to detest the Soviet Union and its treatment of peasants, and eventually approached the CIA in Vienna. He became the first U.S. agent in the GRU. Popov is regarded for his dauntless and unparalleled tradecraft—he regularly got vital and invaluable information to the CIA even while being monitored by the Soviets.

After he was transferred to the Transportation Corps and stationed near Sverdlovsk, the information provided by Popov began to decline in quality. This puzzled and worried the CIA, and Popov himself soon provided an explanation: the KGB had arrested him, and was trying to turn him into a double agent. With signature boldness, Popov informed the CIA of this at the Aragvi Restaurant in Moscow. While under constant surveillance by KGB officers, Popov slipped a note to his CIA handler in the restaurant restroom. The message had been written on scraps of toilet paper over the course of several months.

Before the Aragvi meeting, Popov cut open his hand, wrapped the wound with the note, and wrapped it with a bandage. In the message, he explained the situation fully, including what information he had revealed to the Soviets while under interrogation. The note read in part: “Because the KGB believed I had confessed fully, they are using me in this double agent game. I was told that if I cooperate, my sentence might only be fifteen years. Thus I beg you to act as if you know nothing of this trap. I will keep you informed about my situation and the KGB’s intentions... Do not take any chances.”

Popov was executed a few months later. Though details are hazy, it is thought that British double agent George Behar betrayed him.

Popov’s CIA handler was George Kisevalter, who was also responsible for Oleg Penkovsky, the Soviet military intelligence officer who warned the United States about missiles being sent to Cuba. This is better known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

4. Le Meurice, Paris

On May 14, 1989, Felix Bloch, the director for Canadian and European Affairs for the U.S. State Department, arrived for dinner at Restaurant Le Meurice in Paris. His dining companion was Reino Gikman, an agent of the KGB. Unbeknownst to either man was that across the room were French counterintelligence agents with the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire. They photographed Bloch arriving with a black briefcase and leaving empty-handed, and Gikman arriving empty-handed and leaving with a black briefcase. As The New York Times reported, “It was an expensive dinner. The Meurice always is. But the KGB picked up the check.”

The FBI was eager to put Bloch away, but never managed to prosecute successfully. This was in part because the FBI and the CIA got into a turf war. The Company wanted to snatch both men that night at the restaurant. The Bureau wanted to lure Bloch back to the United States, where he would be easier to arrest. Bloch, meanwhile, protested innocence. Inside the briefcase was a stamp collection, he said. (And in fairness, Bloch was an avid stamp collector.) Either way, once he got back to the United States, the trail went cold. Someone had warned Bloch by phone to lay low and cut off contact with his KGB friend. The FBI believes that Robert Hanssen was responsible for the call.

Bloch was fired from the State Department and stalked relentlessly by the press. After one interview with Time magazine that was conducted at a restaurant, he thanked the reporter, saying he hoped they could do it again, “providing I don’t defect to East Berlin first.” He then turned to the FBI agents spying on him from across the restaurant. “Just kidding,” he said.

Bloch eventually got a job as a checkout bagger at a grocery store. He was later arrested for stealing bags of groceries.

5. Chez Espionage, Washington D.C.

There’s nothing like plotting international intrigue to build up an appetite. When spymasters at the Central Intelligence Agency wanted to get out of the office and blow off some steam, they used to meet at a restaurant laughably codenamed Chez Espionage. The actual venue seems to have rotated, or maybe it’s been clouded by disinformation, but French restaurants La Niçoise and L’Escargot have been named as meeting places. (Last reports put it at an unnamed country club.) David Atlee Phillips, former CIA chief of operations in the western hemisphere, came up with the codename.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]