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The Weird Nicknames of 7 Spy Agency Headquarters

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Because being a secret agent isn’t cool enough, spymasters tend to build elaborate headquarters buildings with really great nicknames. Here are a few headquarters known for their vodka martinis, Aston Martins, and Walther pistols.

1. Legoland

The British Secret Intelligence Service (also called MI6, but more famously known as James Bond’s employer) was only officially acknowledged as an actual organization eight years ago. They probably didn’t have much choice in that decision, as hiding their new headquarters—a giant white-and-Bondi-blue SimCity reward built on the Thames—would have been a bit much. Spies have nicknamed the building Legoland, for obvious reasons.

2. The Aquarium

The GRU, also known as ??????? ???????????????? ?????????? ???????????? ?????, is the military intelligence agency of Russia. Its headquarters is located at Khodynka Airfield in Moscow, and is called “The Aquarium” by GRU employees. Viktor Suvorov, a former Soviet spy, once asked his superior, “What kind of fish are there swimming there?” The response: “There's only one kind there—piranhas.”

3. The Farm

Camp Peary (officially: the Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity) near Williamsburg, Virginia, looks like every secret base in every spy movie ever filmed. That’s probably what the government was going for, as the site hosts a secret base of its own—a CIA training facility known as “The Farm.” Officially, of course, The Farm doesn’t exist, and doesn’t train CIA officers in everything from paramilitary tactics to surreptitiously swapping briefcases. Nor does it have its own airport with a 5,000-foot runway.

4. Liberty Crossing

The two headquarters of the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center are collectively known as Liberty Crossing. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re probably not looking very hard—the complex is the size of five Wal-Mart buildings stacked atop one another. Of course, if you look too hard, things might go badly. As Dana Priest and Bill Arkin reported in the Washington Post, “One step too close without the right badge, and men in black jump out of nowhere, guns at the ready.”

5. The Fort

National Security Agency headquarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland, has several great nicknames: the Puzzle Palace, the Panopticon, the Shadow Factory. Members of the intelligence community just call it “The Fort.” And it makes Liberty Crossing look like a cottage on Walden Pond. The Capitol Building could fit inside of NSA headquarters four times over.

6. The Swimming Pool

The French military doesn’t have the strongest reputation. (Q. “What do you call 100,000 Frenchmen with their hands up?” A. “The army.”) But their spies don’t play around. The Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure kills terrorists, rescues hostages, and runs campaigns in Libya and Rwanda. When Greenpeace planned to float a protest boat near nuclear testing waters, French spies blew it up. In New Zealand. Their headquarters in Paris is known as “The Swimming Pool,” as it is located near the Piscine des Tourelles, the swimming venue of the 1924 Summer Olympics.

7. The Doughnut

The Government Communications Headquarters is the signals arm of British intelligence. GCHQ basically has the same charge as the U.S. National Security Agency, and like the NSA, has an awesome office building. Completed in 1993, the facility is like a prototype of Apple’s spaceship campus under development. Spies call GCQH headquarters “the Doughnut.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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