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5 Ways the KGB Kept Tabs on Hotel Guests

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The old city walls, church steeples, narrow cobblestone streets, and pastel colors of Old Town Tallinn in Estonia make it feel like it should be on top of a wedding cake. But there’s more to this town and country than a Medieval vibe—the deep and relatively recent history is what makes this Baltic city incredible.

Estonia regained its independence from Soviet power less than 25 years ago—so men and women in their late 20s and early 30s can share stories of the communistic culture and Soviet occupation they experienced as children, including long lines at food markets, loss of property, and a lack of color in their lives. For example, most Estonians can remember the special occasion of having their first banana. To children, bubble gum was the utmost of treats, and they would often share a single piece amongst themselves for days, leaving the chewed wad on the dresser when they went to sleep at night. When I was ten, I was knee-deep in Ninja Turtles, and Big League Chew was how I pretended to be Lenny Dykstra.

The KGB watched carefully over its country’s occupation of Estonia and kept an office at the Sokos Viru Hotel in Tallinn just outside the old city walls. It always denied its presence at the hotel, but with a team of about ten, the KGB bugged rooms, restaurants, and monitored the activity of tourists and guests. Why? Because Tallinn is Estonia’s capital and the country’s largest city, and it wanted to keep tabs on people, of course.

What would a stay at this hotel have been like 30 years ago? You can see for yourself by visiting the museum that exists there today, but here’s a breakdown of how the KGB liked to run things.

1. The KGB’s lair was on the 23rd floor, but the elevator only went to the 22nd.

Will McGough

An iron-gated staircase kept guests from wandering up to the restricted top floor, which contained several offices and a radio control room where agents would listen in on guest conversations taking place throughout the hotel.

2. The KGB tapped 60 rooms, installed mics in the plates in the dining room, and drilled holes through hotel room walls to take photographs of visiting journalists and other “suspected guests.”

The KGB would keep a close watch on visiting journalists, recording conversations and watching private meetings held in the rooms via peepholes and “channels” that existed between guest rooms.  

Tourists were also viewed as a threat to Russian rule by the KGB, especially Finnish travelers who would go to Tallinn to reunite with their family members (many families were separated when the Soviets occupied Estonia, some fleeing to Finland or Sweden). Because Soviet Law forbade Estonians from hosting guests in their homes, meetings and reunions would be held in the lobby of the Sokos Viru Hotel. This was surely by design, allowing the KGB to do its thing.   

3. Elevator attendants were instructed to keep track of guests’ comings and goings.

We suppose they could have taken the stairs, but people were lazy back then, too.

4. Hotel employees were regularly tested for their honesty.

Will McGough

The KGB took its employees’ honesty very seriously (although most employees were “technically” in the dark regarding the KGB’s existence in the hotel), frequently testing their loyalty through a variety of entrapment-type exercises. For example, one policy the hotel put forth was that its employees were to not so much as even open any personal belongings that were left behind by guests. Instead, they were to immediately turn the item, such as a purse or wallet, over to a manager.

To test this, phony purses designed to shoot pink powder when opened were left in public areas of the hotel. Think of it as the same concept as today’s fire alarms—if you opened the purse, the powder would stain your hands. Managers were able to then determine that an employee had not followed the hotel’s policy and would punish them accordingly, typically through some temporary job assignment that netted them less cash for a few weeks.

5. The KGB was always watching.

One Finnish curator reported that in over 50 visits to the Sokos Viru, he only stayed in three different rooms. Obviously, this person was being placed in the same bugged rooms routinely and was under careful, continuous watch.

Another tale that is told to this day is that a guest was brought toilet paper by a staff member after complaining aloud in his room that there was none in the bathroom. Now that’s some service! 

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]