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Secret Cities of the Soviet Union

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By Erik Sass

Construction on the Soviet Union's secret cities began during the early 1940s, and by the 1980s there were at least 57 secret settlements with a total population of 1.5 million scattered across the nation. Hidden in remote areas, their existence remained a matter of conjecture among ordinary people until the collapse of the USSR. Since 1991 some of the cities have been opened to visitors, but Western security experts believe there are still 15 secret cities whose names and locations the Russian government refuses to disclose. Here's the scoop on the little we do know.

Hiding from Hitler

After Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and occupied key industrial areas in 1941, Stalin came up with a crafty solution. He had hundreds of factories disassembled and shipped far from the front, to safe locations beyond the Ural Mountains in Siberia.Stalin's pre-fab towns established the pattern for later secret cities. People who entered them were totally cut off in self-contained "closed administrative units" that included apartment blocks, clinics, gyms, schools, stores, theaters, restaurants, and power plants. Factory employees, including managers, were forbidden to leave, as all activity was closely monitored by the predecessor of the KGB, the NKVD. Surrounded by fences and guard forces, the cities were identified with only a name and a number indicating general location "“ and even these coordinates were false since they were changed frequently to deceive spies and saboteurs. Only key officials knew the actual location of the cities, or how to contact them via a secret phone network.

Version 2.0: The Birth of the Atomgrad

soviet super test.jpg After Germany's defeat in 1945, Soviet leaders launched a crash program to build dozens of new secret cities. They were entering into a long period of confrontation with the United States and NATO, and were determined to match Western military power at any cost.The first priority was construction of a nuclear bomb like those dropped on Japan by the United States in 1945. Shrouded in secrecy, the Soviet nuclear program spawned at least a dozen "Atomgrads," 10 of which are still operational. Housing a total population of 600,000-700,000, most were built by slave labor from the Soviet GULAG, and they included everything from plutonium producing towns, to centers for uranium enrichment to cities devoted entirely to nuclear warhead design.

As to how secure the towns were, you might want to consider the small town of Sarov, which the Soviet government took over in 1946 and converted into a giant top-secret nuclear laboratory called Arzamas-16. About 90 square miles in area, it's surrounded by a 25-mile outer security cordon and an inner cordon with a double barbed wire fence. Within the inner cordon, hidden motion detectors and other sensors blanket the city. Like other secret cities, the entire site is elaborately camouflaged to frustrate American spy satellites.

Of course, what the radioactive material is used for varies. British police say the polonium-210 used to kill the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in November of 2006 almost certainly came from Arzamas-16. Litvinenko, who had accused the Russian security service of staging terrorist attacks, said Vladimir Putin had personally ordered assassinations including one on him.

The Cities Find New Purpose

a.laika1.jpgNuclear weapons were just the beginning. In typical Soviet fashion Stalin's successor Nikita Krushchev decided to hide the Soviet space program in the barren plains of southwest Kazakhstan. Construction of Leninsk began in 1955. Here the regime's rocket scientists assembled and launched Sputnik in October 1957, followed by Sputnik 2, carrying the dog Laika, less than a month later. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin made history's first manned space flight from the site. At its height in the 1980s Leninsk had about 100,000 inhabitantsThe Soviets also created new "Akademgorodok," or Academic Cities, devoted to chemical and biological weapons research. Beginning in 1973, dozens of labs employing about 65,000 people produced thousands of tons of biological agents for use in offensive weapons, including plague, tularemia, glanders, anthrax, smallpox, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.

As the Soviet system declined, highly contagious organisms sometimes escaped the research and production facilities, blowing their cover. The deadliest outbreak of anthrax in modern times occurred in 1979, when the accidental release of weaponized anthrax killed at least 68 people near a facility outside Sverdlovsk. In 1993, citing the evidence of defectors, the United States and the United Kingdom accused the new Russian government of continuing research on biological weapons. With rumors circulating that the cities are still churning out deadly new agents like the Marburg virus, the secret of the cities may be out, but their work seems to press on.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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