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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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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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