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9 Intriguing Excerpts From Old FBI Files

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Under J. Edgar Hoover, everybody who was anybody had an FBI file. Here are some interesting things we found while poking around their archives.

1. Albert Einstein

Our favorite scientist’s file is over 1800 pages long. Einstein’s German roots always made the Bureau nervous. It didn’t help that he was an outspoken pacifist and socialist (not to mention a harsh critic of Sen. Joseph McCarthy). When Einstein was asked to join the Manhattan project in 1939, the FBI concluded that, “In view of his radical background, this office would not recommend the employment of Dr. Einstein on matters of a secret nature without a very careful investigation, as it seems unlikely that a man of his background could, in such a short time, become a loyal American citizen.”

The FBI suspected that Einstein was a German spy, and it planned to deport him once they found proof: “Notwithstanding his world-wide reputation as a scientist, [Einstein] may properly be investigated for possible revocation of naturalization.” The Bureau came up empty.

2. Colonel Sanders

Colonel Sanders admired J. Edgar Hoover and occasionally requested favors from him. One time, the Colonel asked Hoover to come to his birthday party, in a letter which now rests in his FBI file:

After searching the Colonel’s criminal record, Hoover gently declined.

3. Extra Sensory Perception

In 1957, William Foos began pretending to read through walls. Weeks later, the FBI was at his door asking if his powers were real:

“Should his claims be well-founded, there is no limit to the value which could accrue to the FBI—complete and undetectable access to mail, the diplomatic pouch; visual access to buildings—the possibilities are unlimited insofar as law enforcement and counterintelligence are concerned… It is difficult to see how the bureau can afford to not inquire into this matter more fully. Bureau interest can be completely discreet and controlled and no embarrassment would result.”

Foos went on to perform elaborate card tricks for FBI agents, CIA members, and leading military officers, but the government became suspicious when he refused to divulge his methods. After consulting a slew of psychologists and university studies, the FBI dropped the case, leaving behind this 40-page file on ESP.

4. The Grateful Dead

Most of the Grateful Dead’s pages are suspiciously blacked out with marker. The file does show, however, how clueless the FBI was about pop music trends. When mentioning the Grateful Dead for the first time, it says, “It would appear this is a rock group of some sort.” The FBI had suspected Jerry Garcia’s group was tied to the criminal drug circle: “LSD originates from San Fransisco, California through a renowned rock group known as Grateful Dead.” Despite its suspicions, the FBI decided not to investigate further.

5. Liberace

The FBI holds over 400 pages on Liberace. Most pages focus on a robbery in 1974, when someone stole hundreds of Liberace’s jewels. Other pages look into numerous extortion attempts that attacked Liberace’s sexuality. A meager two pages, however, show that the rhinestone-clad pianist illegally bet on horse races through a bookie in Buffalo, NY. The FBI considered roasting Liberace before a Grand Jury, but later decided against it.

6. Louie, Louie

The FBI spent 30 months investigating the song Louie, Louie because the lyrics were thought to be dirty. The song was playing across America, and naughty lyrics would have violated a code that forbade “the distribution of obscene material.” Agents listened to the record at different speeds, interviewed band members, and even researched analyses made by teenagers who claimed to know the song’s “true meaning.” The Bureau eventually gave up because they “were unable to interpret any wording in the record.”

7. Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In

The FBI can’t take a joke. In 1971, the bureau penned a 21-page report after Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In made fun of Hoover and the FBI. In one sketch, a troupe of ditzy cheerleaders wore FBI garb. In another, actors pretended to talk to Hoover through a potted flower, suggesting that the FBI had bugged the plant. It obviously hurt the Bureau’s fragile feelings: “Some of the so-called jokes were not only not humorous but did not make any sense, the sight-gags were ridiculously stupid and the fight song featuring the cheerleaders was to a great extent unintelligible.” According to the file, the most hurtful line was this knock-knock joke, which it called “vicious” and “sick-type”:

“Knock, knock”

“Who’s there?”


“Hoover who?”

“Hoover heard of a 76-year old policeman?”

8. I Was a Communist for the FBI (Movie)

In 1941, an FBI agent named Mathew Cvetic joined the Communist Party with the objective of spying on its members. A decade later, Cvetic wrote about his spy adventures. His story appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and was eventually picked up by Warner Brothers, who turned it into an ultra-patriotic (but romanticized) film called, I Was a Communist for the FBI. The film made the Bureau a little nervous. Some parts revealed how the FBI operated; others were just gross misrepresentations. The FBI reported that “Cvetic has no right to presume to speak for the FBI…it might be necessary for us to publicly deny Cvetic’s alleged insinuations.” The FBI later denied that Cvetic had ever been an agent.

9. Roswell’s UFO

You may be surprised to learn that the file that made UFOs (and weather balloons) famous is only one page long:

“Headquarters eight air force, telephonically advised this office that an object purporting to be a flying disc was recovered near Roswell, New Mexico, this date. The disc is hexagonal in shape and was suspended from a balloon by cable, which balloon was approximately twenty feet in diameter. (censored) further advised that the object found resembles a high altitude weather balloon with a radar reflector, but that telephonic conversation between their office and Wright Field had not borne out of this belief. Disc and balloon being transported to Wright Field by special plane for examination. Information provided this office because of national interest in case. And fact that National Broadcasting Company, Associated Press, and others attempting to break story of location of disc today. (Censored) advised would request Wright Field to advise Cincinnati office results of examination. No further investigation being conducted."

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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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