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11 Things You Didn’t Know About America’s Spymasters

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© JASON REED/Reuters/Corbis

There’s more to being a spy than drinking martinis, talking into shoe-phones, and discarding messages that self-destruct in five seconds. Here are 11 surprising facts about America’s spymasters.

1. The CIA had a mad scientist on the payroll

Dr. Sidney Gottlieb sold Christmas trees at a roadside stand, raised goats and was an accomplished square dancer. He also made poisons for the CIA. In the 1950s, the “Company” became interested in mind control. The fear was that the Soviets could do it and America couldn’t. Project MKULTRA sought to bridge that gap with experiments involving LSD and test subjects who were unaware they were being dosed. The CIA later tasked Gottlieb with brewing toxins that would kill someone without leaving a trace. (Fidel Castro was a popular target.) From smallpox to rabbit fever, the self-described Dr. Strangelove knew his business, but the agency never quite managed to pull off an assassination. The department was exposed and shut down in 1973.

2. They have a secret museum

It’s been called “the best museum you’ll never get to see.” Housed at CIA headquarters in Langley, the 11,000-square foot museum is accessible only to members of the agency and cleared guests. New recruits receive a tour on their first day, and thousands of CIA officers walk the galleries for inspiration. Technologies used in the past, and the lessons learned from those technologies, often lead to new applications to ongoing CIA operations. The museum’s budget is classified.

3. The FBI spied on its own director

J. Edgar Hoover served as director of the FBI (and its precursor agency, the Bureau of Investigation) for an astonishing 48 years, serving under eight presidents and 16 attorneys general. No one dared fire him for fear of a public backlash, or worse, Hoover opening his files. But you don’t amass that much power without making a few enemies, so special agents from the Washington Field Office of the FBI were regularly assigned to secretly follow him around, and monitor his house at night. This was called HOOWATCH. (Hoover, of course, knew about it, but rarely spotted his observers.)

4. Nixon tried to fire Hoover—and failed

Near the end of his career, J. Edgar Hoover put a stop to FBI participation in activities that skirted the law, such as unauthorized wiretaps or surveillance. This irritated President Nixon, whose issues with the law would become famous, and later be his undoing. So in 1971, Nixon finally mustered the courage to fire Hoover in order to install a more malleable director. The two met so Nixon could deliver the news. Things didn’t go as planned: whatever was discussed, not only did Nixon lose his nerve and back down, but he actually gave Hoover new authority to expand the FBI legal attaché program in U.S. embassies abroad.

5. The CIA was saved by a guy named Beetle

When General Walter Bedell "Beetle" Smith took charge of the fledgling CIA in October 1950, he recognized at once the disaster he had inherited. The fourth Director of Central Intelligence in four years, he greeted his new staff by saying, "It's interesting to see all of you fellows here. It'll be even more interesting to see how many of you are here a few months from now." During World War II, Smith was indispensable to General Eisenhower, able to instill terror and get the impossible from his subordinates, while soothing tensions and allaying conflict among his peers. As noted by journalist Evan Thomas, soldiers said Smith’s "mood never changed: he was always angry."

Smith reorganized the agency, gutted the worst of its activities, and got rid of the worst of its officers. When Eisenhower was elected president, Smith was appointed undersecretary of state, expanding his authority to reshape American covert operations. Where everyone else in the administration referred to Eisenhower only as "Mr. President," Smith had no problem picking up the phone and saying, "Goddamn it Ike, I think..."

Walter Bedell Smith’s institutional reforms are still in place to this day. As Samuel Halpern, a former senior officer with the agency, would observe, “If it hadn't been for Bedell, I don't think there would be a CIA today.”

6. The NSA was initially housed in a girls' school

Before there was a National Security Agency, there was the Armed Forces Security Agency. Its headquarters was at the Arlington Hall Junior College for Women, a non-profit girls' school seized by the Army Signal Intelligence Service in 1942 under the War Powers Act. The AFSA was largely ineffective at collecting and intercepting signals, which was a problem because that was its entire purpose. General Walter Bedell Smith, who was busy rescuing the CIA, took time to fix the AFSA while he was at it. He outlined the problems to President Truman, and set in motion events that would result in the NSA and the “panopticon” at Ft. Meade.

7. Getting money to secret agencies can be complicated

Funding secret agencies tends to involve sleight of hand. Before the National Security Agency was acknowledged as an actual organization, it was listed in budgets as the Bureau of Ships. Meanwhile, when the CIA decided to build its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a fake aircraft carrier was created on paper, and the money going to its “construction” went to the CIA.

8. NSA headquarters may be the biggest invisible city in the country

It’s hard to overstate just how massive the agency actually is. As James Bamford notes in The Shadow Factory, if NSA headquarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland, were incorporated, it would be one of the largest municipalities in the state. The agency employs 30,000 people who work in 7,000,000 square feet of office space. The site has 37,000 registered cars that drive on 32 miles of road and spend their off-hours on 325 acres of parking. Its police force is one of the largest in the country, with 700 cops and a SWAT team. The main building is so large the U.S. Capitol Building could fit inside of it—four times.

9. The Company has a wicked sense of humor

Following World War II, Frank Wisner helped found the Office of Policy Coordination. Officially, its mission was refugee assistance and working with the International Red Cross. Its actual mission involved covert actions against the Soviet Union. Wisner was a wily, charming, Southern aristocrat who was forever changed when he witnessed the brutal Soviet occupation of Romania. His office invested heavily in psychological warfare, which was still a relatively new concept. Ideas that came from the office included delivering American toiletries across the Iron Curtain (to demonstrate superior Western standards of comfort) and airdropping enormous condoms labeled “Medium” onto the Soviets, to demoralize them against an anatomically superior American army. (Sadly, this plan was never carried out.)

10. The NSA gave rise to the computer age

Major General Ralph Canine, the founding director of the NSA, didn’t know much about computers. But he knew a lot about intelligence, and he knew that the NSA wasn’t producing it. So when the agency’s scientists proposed a computer that would theoretically see a hundred-fold increase in processing speed over top-tier computers on the market, the director said, "Dammit, I want you fellows to get a jump on those guys! Build me a thousand-megacycle machine!”

To produce this impossible computer—named Harvest—Project Lightning was established. It was modeled after the Manhattan Project and is thought to be the largest government-supported computer research program in history. It brought together the best minds in computer science and engineering, and would help vacuum tubes give way to transistors, which would give way to magnetic cores. It produced the first magnetic thin-film content-addressed memory, fundamental materials properties, new developments in hardware fabrication, and high-speed circuitry. Lightning research into practical applications for the Josephson Junction would apply half a century later to the development of quantum computers. Harvest was so mind-bogglingly powerful that it remained in use until 1976, and even then was only discontinued because the custom, high-performance automated tape library had worn out and could not be replaced.

11. The FBI and NSA dug a tunnel under the Soviet embassy

Not all espionage involves bribery, blackmail, cloaks, and daggers. Sometimes the best tradecraft is done with a pickaxe. In the 1980s, the United States began digging a massive tunnel that led directly beneath the Soviet embassy. The goal was to better eavesdrop on its Cold War adversary. (Ironically, while American spies were chiseling away beneath the streets of Washington, the United States was bitterly accusing the Soviet Union of bugging the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.) The project cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and was a joint operation between the FBI and NSA. Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent secretly spying for the Russians, compromised the program.

D.B. Grady is a freelance writer and novelist. He is coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army, author of Red Planet Noir, and a correspondent for The Atlantic. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife and family, and can be found at

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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