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Operation Cornflakes: How the Allies Scammed the Nazi Postal Service

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On February 5, 1945, with World War II in its last desperate months, a German train made its way to the city of Linz. Suddenly, Allied planes swooped in, dropping bombs and derailing it. As the train’s cargo—mail bound for several northern Austrian towns—scattered over the area, a second wave of bombers flew in with a strange payload.

Eight mail bags hit the ground around the train with a thud. Inside each bag were 800 propaganda letters, all addressed to homes and businesses along the train’s route and appropriately stamped. When the train was discovered, German postal workers recovered the bags and delivered the letters without being any wiser about their contents or origins.

Operation Cornflakes had begun.

Propaganda was a favorite tool of the Office of Strategic Services during the war, but the usual method of distributing it, airdropped leaflets, had major drawbacks. Huge numbers of leaflets had to be produced to increase the chances that those who were supposed to see them actually would. Even with enough materials, heavy winds, rain, or Nazi knowledge of a planned drop could result in diversion or destruction of the leaflets before they reached their audience. There had to be a way to remove the variables and the risk from the operation and hand the propaganda right to the Germans.

Going Postal

Eventually, they hit upon the idea of using the German postal service itself as a distribution system. They’d make their materials look like legitimate German mail, leave it around bombed trains, and let the enemy collect and deliver it. The German government would wind up bringing the Allies' propaganda right to its own citizens every day. What’s more, the plan had the added benefit of straining the already overworked and chaotic German communications and transportation sectors.

Operation Cornflakes (named so because the subversive mail was usually delivered just as its targets sat down for breakfast) had many advantages over simple airdrops, but required a lot of legwork to get off the ground. The inner workings of the German mail system had to be learned, so POWs who had been postal workers were interrogated about everything from postal cancellation markings to the ways mail bags were supposed to be packed and sealed. Spies and sympathizers gathered samples of stamps, postal cancellations, mail sacks, and envelopes while OSS staff pulled names and addresses from German telephone directories.

Every aspect of the German postal system, down to the smallest details, were replicated, with some small changes. While most of the envelopes were franked with a regular stamp, some went out bearing subliminal insults. Forgers manipulated the standard stamp with Adolf Hitler’s face to show the Fuhrer’s exposed skull. Other stamps had their country tag on the bottom changed from “Deutsches Reich” (German Empire) to “Futsches Reich” (Ruined Empire). Update added : 3/6/12 - Some featured both changes. These subliminally insulting stamps were stuffed inside the envelopes with other propaganda and, in some cases, maybe even used as postage on the letters (This latter use isn't as well documented as the former. See discussion in the comments below).

Once they knew the ins and outs, OSS operatives scattered throughout Europe began preparing materials. A group in Rome prepared envelopes with more than two million names and addresses at a rate of 15,000 envelopes a week. Groups in Switzerland and England, meanwhile, printed propaganda newspapers and letters and forged stamps. Swiss neutrality posed a serious problem for the OSS office there. With the German Army on its border, Switzerland did not want to face retribution for unwittingly hosting Allied agents, so the government constantly tried to track down and deport operatives there.

Special Delivery

When all the materials were prepared, the loaded mailbags were turned over to the 15th Army Air Force, which was tasked with delivery. Special bombs were designed to hold the bags and were equipped with a detonator linked to a control in the cockpit. With the push of a button, the pilots could launch the mailbags at a height that wouldn’t damage them, and then keep the bomb canister on the plane to prevent the Germans from finding evidence of the drop.

Among the propaganda that arrived in German homes during the operation were Das Neue Deutschland, an OSS-produced newspaper that claimed to be the voice of a growing opposition party within Germany. There were also letters supposedly written by Nazi regional party leader Erich Koch discussing Hitler’s poor health and generals who either wanted to surrender or take the Fuhrer out while he was weakened, creating doubt in the minds of civilians about the strength and unity of the government. Another letter, allegedly from the Verein Einsamer Kriegerfrauen ("Association of Lonely War Women”), was sent to German soldiers to give them the impression that it had become common for the women left at home to engage in promiscuous casual sex while they were gone, weakening their morale.

Most of the fake mail bore return addresses for legitimate businesses, like the Wiener Giro-und Kassenverein, a central securities deposit. This address eventually blew the operation’s cover when an OSS operative writing out the addresses misspelled the name as “Cassenverein.” After German police recovered Allied mailbags from one of the train bombings and took it to a post office, one of the postal clerks noticed the misspelling. The same mistake turned up on several envelopes and the postal workers grew suspicious. They opened the envelopes and discovered the propaganda. Operation Cornflakes was shut down because of a typo.

Over the course of the operation, 20 loads of fake mail were dropped for a total of 320 mailbags and more than 96,000 pieces of propaganda mail. For all the mail that made it into German homes, though, no one is sure if Cornflakes had any significant effect, at least psychologically. The Allies attempted to evaluate the damage their psyops did to enemy morale by surveying German deserters and POWs, but the results were murky. At least 10,000 of the men questioned said they were directly affected by OSS propaganda at some point during the war. For the rest of the soldiers, demoralization was cumulative and affected not just by propaganda, but injuries, battle fatigue, deaths of fellow soldiers, and other conditions, and Cornflakes’ effects just couldn’t be pinpointed. From a strategic standpoint, however, Cornflakes was a clear success, putting extra work on the German postal system and delaying mail, and forcing the German government to divert resources to repairing damaged trains and rail routes.

Most of the forged stamps, envelopes and their contents were destroyed during war, either by the post office after the fraud was discovered or by the mail’s recipients, who simply threw it away. A few items did survive, though, and are highly valued collectors items. To please the keepers of the purse strings, the OSS collected some of the propaganda material and forgeries it had created and compiled them into booklets to gift to members of the Congressional Oversight Committee. Several of these scrapbooks made it out to the public and have sold for as high as $5000. A number of forged German stamps entered the public marketplace when President Franklin Roosevelt’s stamp collection was sold at auction after his death and continue to circulate. Many of these items, especially the Hitler skull stamps, are so sought after by collectors that some people have started to produce and sell forgeries of the forgeries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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