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10 Declassified CIA Cafeteria Complaints

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Getty / Thinkstock

Investigative journalism collaborative MuckRock re-discovered a Freedom of Information Act request goldmine: The complaint box from the CIA cafeteria. Jason Smathers and George LeVine each filed separate FOIA requests (Smathers in 2011, LeVine in 2013) and the government had no choice but to divulge these most shameful secrets from the clandestine agency's food court.

What follows are 10 unedited email complaints from CIA employees about their cafeteria. We've ranked each culinary blunder in order based on how much of a threat they pose to our national security. The emails are reprinted as they appeared in their original form, so all misspellings and grammatical errors have been left in (looks like they could have used their own CIA style guide).

We can only pray that the Jazz Salad travesty has since been resolved.

[Check out more CIA cafeteria goodies over at MuckRock]

10. Sandwich Bread Disaster

Subject: Subway and Stale bread

Hi,
I was very aggrevated at buying subway sandwich and going back to my desk to eat…to find the bread sale and “crunchy” hard…I had to ear the inside and throw the bread out…normally I would return it and have them make me another but I was already at NHB…6th floor…and too far and time consuming to return. PLEASE PLEASE…do not serve us stale bread…I never get stale bread at other subways…so can you lease hold quality control here to subway standards. Thank you

9. Friday Kielbasa Switcheroo

Subject: Friday Breakfast Kilbasa

I purchase the usual Friday Kilbasa this morning and was disappointed to find that FS has changed the brand or this morning’s batch was bad. It doesn’t taste, look or have the same texture as the kilbasa I have been getting from the cafeteria for the past several years. Please change back to the previous brand. This is a Friday treat that I look forward to every week.

8. Diet Pepsi Cloak-and-Dagger

Subject: Wrong Pepsi

Last week and then again this week I have talked to numerous cafe employees to inform them that the pepsi coming out of the regular pepsi spout is diet pepsi. They have the wrong pepsi tank hookled up to the wrong pepsi spout. Yet no one has fixed this problem. Why has this problem not been fixed? Thanks.

7. Unconvincing Russian Undercover Operations

Subject: Today’s Russian Menu

I had the Russian meal today and am disappointed. First of all, to try to be cute with substituting a backward R, a “Ya”, for an R, is tacky. I feel that someone tried to “Americanize” the food so it is palatable to Americans. Please realize that many of us have really traveled to these countries and when you provide food like you did today, it causes me to not support this kind of cuisine in the future. I feel that for example Beef Stroganoff is more American than Russian.

6. Almond Kidnapping

Subject: Breakfast Cereals

As of late there seem to be a shortage of almonds for the breakfast cereals, such as oatmeal, cream of wheat, etc. I sure I’m speaking for myself as well as others, when I kindly request that whomever is responsible for ordering food supplies note the level of usage and increase the almond purchases/supplies as appropriate. Thank you.

5. Condiment Pump Box Catastrophe

Subject: Main Cafeteria at Headquarters

Please put back the individual packets of ketchup, mustard & mayonnaise. The large pump boxes of these items are not convenient to use, causing frustration & are not liked by many people. Two times this week I heard folks make comments about these pump boxes. There were no containers to put ketchup, mustard & mayonnaise in. When I & others have had to use the pump boxes, we use the containers at the salad bar to put the condiments in. We have to find someplace to put down our food & drink, put the condiments in the container & put the lid on the containers. If people are taking their food back to their office they will need a bag from the cashier to juggle all these items. Comments have been made indicating this process is cumbersom, a pain in the neck & is causing frustration to some people. For these & I’m sure other reasons, it would be appreciated by many to put out the individual condiment packets. Thank you for considering this suggestion.

4. Burger King's Dollar Menu Regicide

Subject: Burger King

Why doesn’t the BK facility here offer the “dollar menu” as the outside facilities. Why can’t there be nicer food handlers? Attitude every day.

3. Chicken Meat Coup

Subject: Senor A’s

I recently purchased the 1/4 White Chicken Platter at Senor A’s. However, I was surprised to see that the portion served was not actually 1/4 chicken. I noticed that a portion of al of the breasts had been cut off and whole breasts were not served. As with the 1/4 Dark Platter being the leg and thigh, the 1/4 white should have been a whole bread and a wing. This needs to be corrected. Thanks!

2. Iced Tea Tech War

Subject: Iced tea in OHQ Careteria

I noticed that the previous Brewed Iced Tea dispensers have been replaced with different dispensers with pipes coming out of the back. This new tea tastes terrible as does most processed tea. Please consider reinstating the previous dispensers or with something that brews the tea close by. Thank you. By and large the cafeteria doesn an excellent job.

1. Jazz Salad Apocalypse

Subject: Jazz salads in Cafeteria

Hi — I’ve sent comments about the jazz salads being misadvertised before, but yesterday takes the cake. The Jazz Salad was supposed to be a Sonoma Grape and Proscuitto salad. This was advertised on the on-line menu, and on the sign above the salad (sometimes they are different). This is one of my favorites, so I stand in line and notice there are no grapes. Grapes are in the title of the salad. I asked about them, and the server pointed to the cherry tomatos, said they are red grapes. I said, “nom those are tomatos, sooooo should I just get grapes from the salad bar”. She didn’t really give an opinion — but I did get grapes from the salad bar, and I did tell the cashier about it (she asked me to write a note — I hope you got the note). I do not condone putting salad bar items into a Jazz salad (I have been known to get a separate container for salad bar items to add to my jazz salad) but felt justified in this case.

However, when an item is in the title of the Jazz Salad, please make an effort to include this item in the actual salad. Thank you.

BONUS: CAFETERIA COMPLIMENTS

Subject: Hot bar

The carrots on the hot bar today, 9 January 2013, were amazingly good. Thanks!

*

Subject: salad dressing

Finally, you have improved the salad dressing set-up…it is GREAT…THANK YOU.

*

Subject: Great pre-made salad

Hi — the pre-made salads in the cafeterias are very good, but this new one, Southwestern Chicken Caesar chop salad was EXCELLENT. thanks!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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