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10 Ridiculous Documents Released via the Freedom of Information Act

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brad heath, twitter

The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 allows the American public unprecedented access to previously unreleased government documents through requests and automatic disclosures. In addition to being a massive asset to journalists and eager members of the public, it has also shed light on some of the weirder corners of America’s functioning democracy. Here are 10 of the strangest documents that have been secured by FOIA requests, or released by FOIA reading rooms over the years.

1. A Fan Letter From J. Edgar Hoover to His Favorite Athlete

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J. Edgar Hoover was a busy man during his 48-year tenure as Director of the FBI, but not too busy to take in the occasional baseball game and write fawning letters to his favorite players, as documented in a letter released by the FBI’s FOIA electronic reading room.

The 1938 letter was written from Hoover to Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Vander Meer, fresh off back-to-back no-hitters against the Boston Bees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. After congratulating Vander Meer on the feat, Hoover writes “I thought you might be interested in knowing that last year the Federal Bureau of Investigation won the U.S. Government league championship,” but laments that “unfortunately we do not have any Johnny Vander Meers who are able to turn in two no-hit games within five days.”

2. A List of 2000 Personalized Florida License Plate Requests Reviewed For Obscene Material

myfloridaspecialtyplate.com

For every job that kids aspire to from a young age, like firefighter, teacher, and astronaut, there are countless weird jobs that fill in the cracks of society. Working for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, a job which occasionally requires determining whether novelty license plates are road-appropriate, fits neatly into the latter category.

In 2011, the Miami New Times used a FOIA request to get their hands on a list of over 2300 personalized license plates deemed in need of review for possible objectionable content. The list ranges from the destined-for-failure (“DRUNK” was roundly rejected) to every form of sexual wordplay imaginable (the board was split on “SEXCESS”) to the hilariously immature (“POOP” got the thumbs down, while “POOPIE 1” was approved).

3. An Agreement Between The United States Navy and the Makers of the Movie Battleship

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Cooperation between the United States government and Hollywood occasionally makes sense, like when the CIA helped Kathryn Bigelow with her critically acclaimed 2012 film on America’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. Other times, it’s just confusing, like in the case of 2012’s Battleship, a special effects-drenched action flick loosely adapted from the board game of the same name. But with aliens.

The movie was made in collaboration with the United States Navy, which gave filmmakers access to military assets like the USS Ronald Reagan and Pearl Harbor. And what did the Navy get out of it? According to documents obtained through the FOIA request website MuckRock, partial creative control over the project, including a Department of Defense technical advisor tasked with ensuring the movie “positively represents our service and our Sailors.” The Navy also secured “a minimum of ten (10) DVD copies of the Picture,” a special thanks on the credits, and a private screening in Washington.

4. FCC Complaints About Inappropriate Content On South Park

YouTube, South Park Studios 

Since debuting to cries of public outrage in 1997, South Park has gained a reputation for being able to get away with pretty much anything. It could be that the public forgives the show’s over-the-top profanity because it’s also smart, funny, and frequently insightful. Or, more likely, people now know what to expect.

Most people, at least. Some folks were a little late to the South Park outrage game, as shown in documents obtained through the FOIA website Government Attic detailing complaints against the show to the Federal Communications Commission between 2004 and 2007. One slightly confused citizen wrote “You may expect something like this on HBO, Showtime, etc. but not on the Comedy Channel.” Another decided on a fair punishment for creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone: “They should be fined 6000 per word.”

5. The FBI’s Twitter Slang Dictionary

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In a classic case of “Is this seriously what our hard-earned tax dollars are going to?” the FBI maintains a glossary of internet abbreviations used for Twitter, as well as “instant messages, Facebook and Myspace.” (We’ll let you make your own MySpace joke.) Someone privy to this fact filed a FOIA request for “A copy of all records or documentation available” on “so-called ‘leetspeak’” earlier this year. Following several months of bureaucratic back and forth, MuckRock finally got their hands on the document this June.

Considering that enemies of the state like ISIS and Al-Qaeda use Twitter and other forms of social media, it probably doesn’t seem like the world’s worst idea, until you actually read the list, with includes shorthand for everything ranging from the harmless (L8R G8R for “later gator”) to the lifted-from-the-pages-of-a-crappy-‘90s-sitcom (DEGT for “don’t even go there”) to direct references to a 1997 Jennifer Love Hewitt movie (IKWYDLS for “I know what you did last summer”).

6. Some Not-Very-Revealing Pictures Of An FBI Retirement Party

It might be hard to believe, but the FBI is made up of actual human beings who do actual human being stuff, like hang out with friends and go to parties. The Bureau was given a rare opportunity to personalize its employees when USA Today reporter Brad Heath requested pictures from a retirement party earlier this year. However, considering they chose to redact everyone’s face, you could argue that they missed the mark pretty thoroughly.

Initially tweeted by Heath and then published by Gawker, the pictures of an Atlanta-based FBI agent’s 2012 sendoff were censored under a FOIA privacy exemption, with the Bureau crudely censoring the faces of everyone involved using white squares and pentagons. The results ended up looking like a bizarre work of modern art that confirmed what we might have already assumed: There’s nothing creepier than pictures of people hugging, shaking hands, and hanging out around a pool with enormous blocks superimposed over their heads.

7. The White House’s Beer Recipe

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In 2012, one Redditor learned that the old adage “ask and ye shall receive” was more than just a platitude when he used the FOIA to request the recipe for White House Honey Ale. White House chefs had been brewing small batches of the beer since 2011 at the request of President Obama, who had taken an interest in the home-brewing movement and bought a kit with his own money.

After that beer lover posted his FOIA request on Reddit, and following some interest from other home-brew lovers across the nation, the President revealed in a Reddit AMA session that the recipe would be released soon. “I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty," he declared. Shortly after, the recipe popped up on the White House’s blog, complete with ingredients and instructions. Good luck getting your hands on the honey “tapped from the first ever bee-hive on the South Lawn” used in the recipe, though.

8. FTC Complaints Against Dating Websites

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The great Pat Benatar once sang “Love is a Battlefield,” and like all battlefields, it cannot be fully regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying, to the tune of 2364 complaints against the websites eHarmony, Match.com, and OkCupid.com since 2005.

Writer Inkoo Kang obtained the documents through three separate FOIA requests in 2013, with all three requests being fulfilled shortly after. Most of the complaints were made against Match.com (2056, compared to 301 against eHarmony and seven against OkCupid) and, as you might imagine, they contain everything from legitimate qualms and concerns about scams, spam, and failures to cancel payment, to lonely souls venting their dating frustrations. “Out of thousands of lesbians across the United States nobody sent me a hello or wonk [sic],” wrote one frustrated eHarmony customer. “I want my money refunded.”

9. A FBI Profile of Jack The Ripper About 100 Years Too Late

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The famously unsolved “Jack the Ripper” case, which revolves around a series of violent murders in London’s Whitechapel district between 1888 and 1891, has become a favorite subject for amateur slueths, conspiracy buffs, and filmmakers. And, even though the case occurred across the Atlantic many generations ago, it was also the subject of an FBI criminal analysis in 1988.

The report was conducted by the FBI at the request of Cosgrove-Meurer Productions for their documentary production The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper, and was later released through the FBI's FOIA reading room. It includes a psychological profile of the murderer (“quiet, a loner, shy, slightly withdrawn, and orderly in appearance while working”), and even imagines a scenario in which the FBI interrogates the killer. “Jack the Ripper would be best suited to be interviewed during the early morning hours,” it reads. ”He would feel more relaxed and secure to confess his homicides.”

10. Seventeen Pages Of Correspondence Pooh-Poohing a Laugh-In Sketch

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An early ancestor of Saturday Night Live, the scattershot, vaudevillian Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In is tame by today’s standards, but when it aired on NBC in 1968 and 1973, the bawdy jokes, drug references, and political satire made it one of the most controversial shows of its time. Richard Nixon famously appeared on the show while campaigning for president in 1968. However, the show’s relationship with the United States government took a turn for the worse following a 1971 skit, which, according to an FBI Vault-released document, featured “cheerleaders who sang a ‘fight song’ about the FBI.’”

Several concerned Americans wrote letters of support to J. Edgar Hoover expressing their dissatisfaction, including one viewer who chides the show for making the FBI “a target of undue ridicule and mockery.” Another launches a two-front attack on the sketch, writing that the “so-called jokes were not only not humorous but did not make any sense.” After being alerted, the FBI decided to settle on keeping a tape of the sketch “maintained in the Crime Research Section in the event the Director wishes to hear it.”

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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