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How a Nickel and a Paperboy Brought Down a Cold War Spy

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In 1957, Vilyam "Willie" Genrikhovich Fisher (aka Rudolf Ivanovich Abel) was convicted of conspiracy to “act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government without notification to the Secretary of State,” conspiracy to “obtain American defense information” and conspiracy to “transmit defense information to the Soviet Union.” The Brooklyn Eagle described the Soviet intelligence officer as a “shabby, bird-faced man,” a guy whose neighbors would never assume to be a spy. That ability to blend in and escape suspicion was what allowed him to operate in the U.S. as part of a network of spies for almost a decade. And he might have never been caught were it not for a Russian turncoat and a newspaper delivery boy who thought he’d been stiffed.

The Hollow Nickel

On Monday, June 22, 1953, 14-year-old Jimmy Bozart, a delivery boy for the Brooklyn Eagle, was making the rounds and collecting payments. At 3403 Foster Avenue in Brooklyn, a neighbor broke a dollar for one of his customers, and Jimmy left the building with a handful of coins. One of them, he thought, had a odd ring as they jingled together. He pulled out the coin, a nickel, and rested it in his finger. It felt lighter than the other nickels.

He threw the nickel to the ground, and Jefferson’s face went one way and Monticello went the other. Secured in one half of the busted coin was what appeared to be a tiny photograph.

In the comic books and pulp detective fiction Jimmy read, this was spy stuff. He’d stumbled onto something big, maybe some sort of secret code or plan. He told a friend at school, who told his dad, a NYPD officer. The cop passed it up the chain of command, and the department turned it over to the FBI. Agents from the New York field office, also suspecting a coded message, confiscated Jimmy’s nickel and set about finding out where the coin came from and what the numbers meant.

The agents determined that the face of the coin was from 1948, while the reverse side came from another coin minted between 1942 and 1945. They discovered a small hole in the “R” in “In God We Trust,” drilled through the face of the coin so that a needle or other fine point could be inserted to pry the container open. The mysterious slip Jimmy found inside was a microphotograph, showing a series of numbers arranged in columns. There was no key, and agency cryptologists and code-cracker machines were unable to make any headway.

Meanwhile, agents chased down leads on the coin’s source. The ladies who gave Jimmy the nickels had no idea that they had a hollow coin. Magic shops and novelty retailers who dealt in trick coins were consulted, but none had ever seen one quite like what the agents had.

The bureau, unable to make heads or tails of the nickel, put the case on hold.

The Defector

A break in the case came four years later when a man named Reino Hayhanen called the U.S. embassy in Paris and then showed up at its door seeking help. He revealed that he was a KGB officer and, after operating in the U.S. for 5 years, was being recalled to Moscow. He could not bear the thought of returning to the USSR so, on his way back, he stopped in Paris to turn himself in and defect.

American intelligence officers brought him back to the States to explain how he and his fellow spies operated. He showed them the subtle signals they used to arrange meetings, like a pushpin stuck in a certain telephone pole, and the dead drops they used to pass messages, like a crack in a concrete step near a subway station. The Soviets, he explained, had given the spies a number of hollowed out objects in which to hide their communications: Screws. Pens. Flashlight batteries. Coins.

Someone remembered the hollow coin that the FBI had been working with and, with Hayhanen’s help, they broke the code. The coded picture, it turned out, had been meant for Hayhanen. It was a welcome message from Moscow upon his arrival in America. Through some mishap, he never received it, and the coin wound up circulating around New York City for months.

Spy vs. Spy

Hayhanen also helped authorities identify other Soviet agents working in the U.S., including “Mikhail,” Hayhanen’s initial contact there, who turned out to be a former Soviet U.N. functionary who had already returned home, and “Quebec,”  a U.S. Army sergeant who had worked in the garage of the U.S. embassy in Moscow and had been recruited “on the basis of compromising materials." They had a harder time identifying “Mark,” Hayhanen’s most recent handler, who was still operating without diplomatic cover under a number of false identities. Hayhanen didn’t know where Mark lived or what name he was currently using, but he did know a few details from their infrequent meetings.

Mark, Hayhanen said, was in his 50s, with a medium build and thinning gray hair. He took photographs in his free time, and was pretty good at it. Once, he even took Hayhanen to a storage room to see his photo supplies and some of his pictures in a storage unit and studio in the heart of Brooklyn.

Hayhanen took the FBI to the building, and a search of it led them to Emil R. Goldfus, a photographer who kept a studio there and also used to rent a storage room. Agents spent weeks watching Goldfus’ studio and apartment, waiting for him to show himself. After finally getting a photo of him with a hidden camera, they confirmed with Hayhanen that they had the right man and moved in to make an arrest.

Goldfus admitted that that was not his real name and that he was Rudolf Abel, a Soviet citizen, but would not confess to being a spy and was uncooperative during questioning. At his apartment, though, agents found a treasure trove of espionage equipment: fine-tipped drills for hollowing out coins, rings and cuff links to store messages, a book on cryptography, maps of Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City and State, radio tubes, high-speed film, a radio capable of receiving messages from Russia, multiple false passports and other IDs, and scores of cryptic missives written in English and Russian.

Fisher/Abel was tried and convicted a few months later, with Hayhanen among the witnesses testifying against him. He was sentenced to concurrent prison terms of of 30, 10 and 5 years for the three charges, but only served about 4 years. He was released in 1962 in exchange for American pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down in Soviet airspace and held prisoner.

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Health
Growing Up With Headphones May Not Damage Kids’ Hearing
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A study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery finds no increase in child and adolescent hearing loss despite a rise in headphone and earbud use.

"Hearing impairment in children is a major public health burden given its impact on early speech and language development, and subsequently on academic and workforce performance later in life," the authors write. "Even mild levels of hearing loss have been found to negatively affect educational outcomes and social functioning."

As portable music players continue to grow in popularity, parents, doctors, and researchers have begun to worry that all the music pouring directly into kids' ears could be damaging their health. It seems a reasonable enough concern, and some studies on American kids' hearing have identified more hearing loss.

To take a closer look, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), collected from 1988 to 2010. They reviewed records from 7036 kids and teens between the ages of 12 and 19, checking each participant's hearing tests against their exposure to noise.

As expected, the authors write, they did find a gradual increase in headphone use and other "recreational noise exposure." And they did see an uptick in hearing loss from 1988 to 2008 from 17 percent to 22.5 percent. But after that, the trend seemed to reverse, sinking all the way down to 15.2 percent—lower than 1988 levels. They also found no significant relationship between noise exposure and hearing loss.

The results were not uniform; some groups of kids were worse off than others. Participants who identified as nonwhite, and those of lower socioeconomic status, were more likely to have hearing problems, but the researchers can't say for sure why that is. "Ongoing monitoring of hearing loss in this population is necessary," they write, "to elucidate long-term trends and identify targets for intervention."

Before you go wild blasting music, we should mention that this study has some major limitations. Hearing loss and other data points were not measured the same way through the entire data collection period. Participants had to self-report things like hearing loss and health care use—elements that are routinely under-reported in surveys. As with just about any health research, more studies are still needed to confirm these findings.

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Design
Glow-in-the-Dark Paths Come to Singapore
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Studio Roosegaarde's Van Gogh path in the Netherlands in 2014.

Glow-in-the-dark materials are no longer for toys. Photoluminescence can help cities feel safer at night, whether it’s part of a mural, a bike lane, or a highway. Glow-in-the-dark paths have been tested in several European cities (the above is a Van Gogh-inspired bike path by the Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde) and in Texas, but now, the technology may be coming to Singapore. The city-state is currently developing a 15-mile greenway called the Rail Corridor, and it now has a glow-in-the-dark path, as Mashable reports.

The 328-foot stretch of glowing path is part of a test of multiple surface materials that might eventually be used throughout the park, depending on public opinion. In addition to the strontium aluminate-beaded path that glows at night, there are also three other 328-foot stretches of the path that are paved with fine gravel, cement aggregate, and part-grass/part-gravel. The glow-in-the-dark material embedded in the walkway absorbs UV light from the sun during the day and can emit light for up to eight hours once the sun goes down.

However, in practice, glow-in-the-dark paths can be less dazzling than they seem. Mashable’s reporter called the glowing effect on Singapore’s path “disappointingly feeble.” In 2014, a glowing highway-markings pilot by Studio Roosegaarde in the Netherlands revealed that the first road markings faded after exposure to heavy rains. When it comes to glowing roads, the renderings tend to look better than the actual result, and there are still kinks to work out. (The studio worked the issue out eventually.) While a person walking or biking down Singapore’s glowing path might be able to tell that they were staying on the path better than if they were fumbling along dark pavement, it’s not the equivalent of a streetlight, for sure.

The trial paths opened to the public on July 12. The government is still gathering survey responses on people’s reactions to the different surfaces to determine how to proceed with the rest of the development. If the glow-in-the-dark path proves popular with visitors, the material could eventually spread to all the paths throughout the Rail Corridor. You can see what the glowing path looks like in action in the video below from The Straits Times.

[h/t Mashable]

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