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The Early History of 5 Spy Agencies

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Most intelligence agencies in the U.S. government were formed to solve specific problems, or evolved from preceding organizations. There wasn’t always an FBI, for example. Before its founding, there was the Bureau of Investigation, whose members were drawn from the Secret Service. Most agencies operate in blackout conditions, and it takes a lot of work to uncover the details. National security journalism is cumulative, and reporters were crowdsourcing long before the word existed. With that in mind, here are first-mentions of spy agencies in the New York Times.

1. The Secret Service

Though it's no longer considered part of the intelligence community, the Secret Service was actually the first intelligence agency of the United States. The first mention of the “Secret Service Division” of the Department of the Treasury was on September 18, 1865. In a round up of dispatches concerning courtroom proceedings, fallout from “the rebellion,” sanitation reform, and pardons, is the mention of a “secret service division of the Solicitor's office,” which has been informed “of the arrest of several persons engaged in counterfeiting.” (The men arrested: Jokes, who first escaped apprehension by leaping from a train; and Tobias C. Eckert, who did not.)

The United States Secret Service doesn’t get its first feature story until April 11, 1874. The lead sentence: “Of the thousands who daily traverse Broadway in the vicinity of Bleecker Street, few, if any, are aware of the close vicinity of an institution whose ramifications, extending from Maine to California, and from Minnesota to Texas, carry terror and defeat into the ranks of outlaws, whose secret haunts no other organization in the land could reach or break up.” The piece never really settles down, though a few interesting bits of early Secret Service slang are introduced: counterfeiters are part of “the profession.” Groups of counterfeiters are called “gangs.” To be “pulled” means to be arrested. Fraudulent bills are called “queers.” When a “shadow” trails a suspect, and is certain that the suspect is carrying queers, he “gives the office” (or: makes a signal) to other agents to make an arrest. Counterfeiters are broken into four groups: “dealers,” who make the deals but never carry the “goods”; “boodle-carriers,” who keep the counterfeit money on their person; “shovers,” who move the money from the boodle-carrier to the buyer; and “engravers,” who are the rarest and most talented of the bunch.

Also given in the story is the address of Secret Service headquarters: “No. 56 Bleecker Street, near Crosby.” So much for secrecy.

2. The National Security Agency

The NSA, whose purview concerns signals intelligence, is the successor to the dysfunctional Armed Forces Security Agency. (Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, who rebuilt and strengthened the CIA, was also responsible for restructuring and creating the NSA.) There are few agencies in the government as successfully secretive as the NSA, once known as the Bureau of Ships when money needed to be allocated, and once informally called No Such Agency (because it didn’t officially exist), and whose members “never say anything.”

Its first mention in the New York Times is on December 4, 1954, in a short piece noting the upcoming trial of Joseph S. Petersen, an ex-Agency employee who allegedly stole classified material. The NSA is given no explanation—only a name—and even the most eagle-eyed reader of the Times should have been baffled by the heretofore unmentioned and entirely unknown federal agency. Weeks later, it is described only as “a communications monitoring service.” The following month, when the employee is given 7 years in prison, hints of the NSA’s purpose are given in Times coverage. The material stolen concerned “communications intelligence activities of the United States and foreign governments.” The documents contained “the secret code of the Dutch Government and an analysis of the movement of North Korean personnel,” as well as “a Chinese telegraphic code.” Petersen claimed to have taken the sensitive documents to better prepare for a course he was teaching at the NSA.

3. The National Reconnaissance Office

The U.S. Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency founded the NRO in 1961 as a joint project. Its existence was so secret that even its letterhead was classified until 1995. Its first mention in the New York Times was in 1977, in an article describing the bitter infighting of the Carter White House over the possible creation of an “intelligence czar.” (Similar to the position Nixon pushed for as a way of getting J. Edgar Hoover out of the way, and similar to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that was created in 2004.) The National Reconnaissance Office is here described, alongside the NSA, as providing “the nation’s basic communications, electronic and satellite intelligence.” It’s noted that the NRO falls under the aegis of the Secretary of Defense. That isn’t much to go on, but it’s something.

Readers of the Washington Post would have been better informed, as the agency had first been revealed in those pages in 1973 under the headline “A $1.5 Billion Secret in the Sky.” It wasn’t until 1985 that the New York Times got serious about the National Reconnaissance Office, when journalist James Bamford described the agency in great detail.

4. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency was formed in 1996 to give spies and soldiers a better view of the battlefield. Its first mention in the Times was late the following year, when Tim Wiener revealed that the agency “makes pictures and maps from space.”

By 2003, NIMA was a serious player in the spy game, and got a name change to reflect its importance—the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Like the CIA, NSA, and FBI, it became a “three-letter agency.” (Yes, the hyphen is probably cheating.) The NGA first appeared in the New York Times that year, where its evolving mission was described: “The military is moving away from paper maps toward digital versions that combine all sorts of intelligence, from physical features, like the soil composition of a mountainside, to the precise location of intercepted cell-phone conversations.” The agency’s role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was also noted, including its ability to provide real-time “three-dimensional building-by-building maps of Baghdad.”

5. The Central Intelligence Agency

The National Security Act of 1947 was a sweeping reorganization of the national security apparatus of the United States. Among its provisions included the establishment of the U.S. Air Force, the formation of the National Security Council, creation of the Department of Defense, and the founding of a Central Intelligence Agency. As written in the act, the CIA sounds like a fairly modest organization. It is charged with advising the National Security Council and evaluating intelligence. Its powers are actually constrained; the act specifically prevents the CIA from having any “police, subpoena, law-enforcement powers, or internal-security functions.” But there is a provision to “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.” Not long after, they’re successfully launching coups d’état in Guatemala and Iran. (The only two successful coups ever initiated by the CIA.)

The Company first appeared in the New York Times in 1949, in a review of the book “Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy.” The author of the book describes the legal foundation of the CIA, and criticizes lawmakers for not giving the Director of Central Intelligence enough power, particularly with regard to overseeing the other members of the intelligence community. In many ways, the book seems prescient. Fifty-five years later, the same debate was ignited concerning the position of the Director of National Intelligence, which was established in 2004 and inherited oversight of the intelligence community.

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Sponsored by Byzantium Security International

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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