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FX Network

How Realistic is The Americans?

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FX Network

FX's drama The Americans—which has its second season premiere tonight—is set in the 1980s during the Cold War and revolves around deep-cover KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth, who have been living in the U.S. for 15 years. On the show, the pair regularly engages in espionage, violent combat, sleeping with the enemy, and much more—all of which could potentially blow their covers and set international politics into chaos. The Americans is certainly entertaining and has garnered critical acclaim, but is it realistic? 

Show creator Joseph Weisberg was inspired by an incident in 2010 in which 11 deep-cover agents of the Russian government were arrested for conspiracy. In essence, they were foreign spies trained in Russia to assume false identities and report information back to the government. To suss the facts from the fiction, I consulted Peter Earnest, the Executive Director of the International Spy Museum and a career CIA veteran of 36 years (who also admits that he enjoys the show, though he doesn’t watch on a weekly basis).

Getting into the Country

One thing the Russian spy ring of 2010 and The Americans' Elizabeth and Philip have in common is that they are all “illegals.” This doesn’t mean that they entered the country illegally or conducted diplomatic work that would be considered unlawful, but rather that they assumed a false identity and have a relationship with their mother country (in this case, USSR/KGB) that is unknown to the host country. KGB agents who were not undercover entered as Russian diplomats, according to Earnest, but didn't declare themselves as KGB; CIA agents had the same practice.

Leading a Double Life

Considering the show’s protagonists spend most of their time fighting bad guys, seducing important sources, and breaking into secure locations, it’s difficult to believe that anyone in their situation could hold down a double life, with kids, neighbors, and clients of their cover businesses being unaware. While maintaining a double life, the real-life counterparts were less concerned about the awesome spy stuff and more focused on their new identities. They were putting legitimate work into their cover businesses, integrating themselves into American life, and raising families. And a couple of them were pretty successful: One was a financial planner earning $135,000 a year, while another owned a real estate firm in Manhattan that was valued at $2 million.

According to ex-CIA operative Milton Bearden, the Russian government likely didn’t mind these side businesses becoming successful because self-sufficient spies were cheaper to support.

In her 1994 memoir, ex-Russian spy Galina Fedorova said that illegals were trained at the KGB’s legendary Directorate S to assume a false identity. The candidates were given a psychological screening and underwent grueling training to prepare them for an isolated life in deep cover. In order to make their covers convincing, the KGB would mine records of deceased foreign babies and use their identities for the spies.

Multiple Personalities

Over the course of the first season of The Americans, Philip and Elizabeth juggle half a dozen identities, including one who seduces an FBI agent's secretary. In reality, a deep-cover agent’s life was far more boring. They lacked support from their home country and generally only communicated with them once or twice a year. Because of this, they spent much more time on keeping up their false identities and were unable to take any big risks. Oleg Gordievsky, former deputy head of the KGB, said in a 2010 interview that deep-cover spies “often fail to deliver better intelligence than their colleagues who work in the open.”

In fact, the 2010 Russian spy ring was so short on secrets, they couldn’t be indicted on any treason charges because no information they passed on was of any value. The New York Times reported, “The assignments, described in secret instructions intercepted by the F.B.I., were to collect routine political gossip and policy talk that might have been more efficiently gathered by surfing the web.”

According to Earnest, “Illegals are used for maybe one or two missions at most because they’re very sensitive assets. [The Russian government has] gone to great expenses to train and deploy them."

As for why these spies were sent sometime after the fall of the Soviet Union to gather information in what is now a relatively open society, many sources suggested bureaucratic inertia.

The Loyalty Issue

According to Bearden, Moscow’s biggest challenge with agents like Philip and Elizabeth wouldn't be entrusting them to complete dangerous missions, but rather ensuring that they remained loyal amid the comforts of daily suburban American life. Earnest points out that defections happened fairly often. When asked why anyone wouldn’t defect, Earnest replied that, in many instances, sleeper agents had friends and family back home whose lives would be threatened if they defected.

Although Philip and Elizabeth are a glamorized version of deep-cover spies, that’s not to say that much of what we see on the show couldn't—or didn’t—happen in real life. For example, one seemingly far-fetched scene in The Americans in which someone is poisoned with an umbrella was actually based on one of the most perfectly executed assassinations of the Cold War. In 1978, Bulgarian exile George Markov was stabbed in the leg with an umbrella containing tiny cyanide capsules. He died three days later; the perpetrator, a Bulgarian operative, wasn’t identified until 2005 and wasn’t tracked down until March 2013—after the episode inspired by the event had aired.

Special thanks to Peter Earnest and the International Spy Museum.

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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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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