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10 Things You Didn't Know About the President's Secret Army

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© Yslb Pak/Xinhua Press/Corbis

The U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC, pronounced JAY-sock) is best known for the Osama bin Laden raid. But it has long served as the president's secret army, planning and executing the most dangerous, highly classified missions of the United States military. In 2009, its snipers rescued an American ship captain held captive by Somali pirates. In 2003, JSOC hunted down and captured Saddam Hussein near Tikrit, Iraq. In 1993, two Delta snipers earned posthumous Medals of Honor for actions during the Battle of Mogadishu (a JSOC operation portrayed in Black Hawk Down). And before that, members of the Command were tracking Scud missiles during the Gulf War and slithering down ropes in Panama. Here are a few things about the president's secret army that you might not know.

1. WHEN YOU HEAR "DELTA FORCE" OR "SEAL TEAM SIX," THEY'RE TALKING ABOUT JSOC.

The U.S. Army Delta Force (officially the Army Compartmented Element) and the U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six (officially the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, although, according to The Atlantic, the name was changed in 2010 to something still unknown) are JSOC's most publicized forces. They conduct the nation's black operations, and work in absolute secrecy. When an operator from one of these units is killed in action, the Department of Defense generally releases his name with a cover story for the death. (A training accident, for example.)

2. WHEN SEAL TEAM SIX WAS ESTABLISHED, THERE WERE ONLY TWO SEAL TEAMS.

In 1980, Richard Marcinko, commander of SEAL Team 2, was tasked with forming a new U.S. Navy counterterrorist unit. He named it SEAL Team Six to trick Soviet intelligence into believing the United States had at least three other commando units completely unaccounted for.

3. JSOC CAN RECONSTRUCT DOCUMENTS THAT HAVE BEEN BURNED.

When JSOC teams collect intelligence on the battlefield, they benefit from a quiet revolution in document exploitation (DOCEX) techniques. Algorithms assign values to data based on the probability that a faint "I" is indeed an "I." The upshot is that DOCEX specialists can even reconstruct documents that have been burned beyond recognition.

4. THE AIRCRAFT USED IN THE BIN LADEN RAID WERE FROM AREA 51.

Specially modified helicopters carried Red Squadron of SEAL Team Six to Abbottabad, Pakistan, for the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. The Black Hawks were fitted with top secret radar-spoofing technology allowing U.S. forces to slip across the border unnoticed. These stealth aircraft were developed and tested at the infamous Area 51, near Groom Lake, Nevada. They are of earthly origin.

5. THE PRESIDENT'S SECRET ARMY IS EVERYWHERE.

Alongside the Central Intelligence Agency, operators from Delta Force and SEAL Team Six infiltrated China to map the locations of Chinese satellite transmission facilities. It has operated in Peru, tracking members of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. And a JSOC team usually shadows the president of the United States when he is overseas, in the event of a catastrophic breakdown by U.S. Secret Service.

6. THERE IS A RIVALRY BETWEEN DELTA FORCE AND SEAL TEAM SIX.

The areas of operation were eventually divided between Delta Force running operations in Iraq, and SEAL Team Six responsible for Afghanistan. Accordingly, the former captured Saddam Hussein and the latter killed Osama bin Laden. But for reasons obvious, both units wanted Bin Laden. When the mission went to SEAL Team Six, some complained that it was because navy admirals commanded both JSOC and the U.S. Special Operations Command. Shortly after the mission, a highly classified roster of the men on the Abbottabad raid somehow leaked to the press. (It was never published.) Inside JSOC, Delta guys blamed SEAL guys for basking in the spotlight and inviting the attention.

7. THERE IS A JSOC BASE IN A MAJOR EUROPEAN AIRPORT.

An arm's throw away from people deplaning for European family vacations is a JSOC counterterrorist unit on alert and ready to depart anywhere in the world at a moment's notice.

8. GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL WAS KNOWN AS THE POPE.

During the 1993 siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, JSOC provided equipment and trainers to federal forces. (JSOC did not participate in the raid.) At the time, Attorney General Janet Reno complained that getting information out of JSOC was like trying to pry loose the Vatican's secrets. Some jokingly called the commander of JSOC "the Pope," but it wasn't until Stanley McChrystal took charge in 2003 that the name stuck. In many ways a warrior-monk, he was known for relentless schedules, minimal sleep, intense physical fitness, and eating only a single meal a day. When he left JSOC, he took the papacy with him.

9. JSOC BUILT COURTROOMS IN IRAQ.

Shortly after William McRaven assumed command of JSOC in 2008, he faced a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq that prevented U.S. counterterrorism forces from conducting raids without warrants. Warrants were an alien concept to the president's secret army. Though there was internal resistance, Admiral McRaven insisted on following the agreement. To do so, he directed JSOC to build courthouses throughout Iraq, and flew in JAG officers to work with Iraqi judges. The system worked. JSOC personnel would testify and judges would issue warrants. This facilitated greater trust between the Iraqi government and the U.S. commandos it empowered.

10. THERE WAS A JSOC EQUIVALENT TO THE DEPARTMENT OF PRE-CRIME.

In Minority Report, a police agency organized around psychics and machines can predict a crime before it happens. In Iraq, the president's secret army had something similar. A project codenamed NGA SKOPE allowed JSOC to merge data collected from just about any intelligence source and predict, based on patterns of movement, where insurgents were likely to be and what they were likely to do. (For example: The recorded locations and orientations of insurgents' cars during one IED attack made it possible to predict future attacks based on similar movements.)

The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady (John Wiley & Sons, 2012) is available at Amazon and the Apple iBooks store.

This piece originally ran in 2012.

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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