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9 Animals Accused of Espionage

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Getty Images

Our furry friends could make the perfect secret agents—easy to train, small, quick, and too cute to look dangerous, they’ve got the perfect cover to infiltrate your home. And while spy animals might seem like the stuff of movies, over the years a number of (probably) innocent animals have been accused of espionage, nine of which are collected here:


Back in 2009 George Osborne’s cat Freya went missing. No one thought much of it until a few years later, after Osborne became Chancellor of the Exchequer and moved into number 11 Downing Street, right next door to the British Prime Minister. Shortly thereafter, he received a phone call notifying him that Freya had been found, and she was welcomed home by the Osborne family.

However, eyebrows were soon raised after Freya began waltzing in and out of some of the government’s most sensitive buildings, and some whispered that she might have been captured by a foreign power and bugged. In 2014 Freya was sent to live with another family in the Kent countryside, supposedly after being usurped by Osborne’s new dog, but some may wonder if her habit of infiltrating the heart of government may have been the real reason.


In January 2016 an enormous vulture (its wingspan was 6 feet, 5 inches!) was captured flying over Lebanon after arousing suspicion because it had a tracker on its tail. Lebanese villagers seized the poor bird and accused Israel of training it as a spy. In fact, the bird was part of an effort by Tel Aviv University and others to re-introduce raptors to the Middle East. After a few ruffled feathers, the vulture was returned to Israel.


A dead falcon found in the border region of India and Pakistan in 2013 aroused suspicion after a small camera was discovered on its body. India seized the remains and speculated that the falcon may have been trained to spy on the Indian army, who conduct war games in the area. However it soon became clear that the camera was not sophisticated enough to have been planted by an intelligence agency and instead it was thought to have been used by Pakistani hunters.


After a series of shark attacks in the popular Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2010, rumors in the Egyptian press accused Israeli intelligence agency Mossad of training the beasts. It was thought that the shark might have been deliberately planted in the area in order to damage the tourist trade. Israel vehemently denied the accusations and pointed out that they too had beach resorts on the Red Sea, meaning that any shark in the area was a danger to Israel as well.


During the Napoleonic Wars between England and France in the early 19th century, a French ship was wrecked off the shore of northeast England. According to local legend, the inhabitants of Hartlepool gathered on the beach to see off their enemies but found only one survivor, a monkey dressed in a miniature military uniform. Never having seen a Frenchman before, the townsfolk immediately suspected the monkey of being a French spy and questioned the unfortunate beast, who unsurprisingly failed to answer their questions. After an impromptu trial, the monkey was convicted of spying and hanged. Hartlepool remains strangely pleased with this historic incident and their soccer team has a monkey mascot named H’Angus the Monkey, while the rugby team is affectionately known as the Monkeyhangers.



The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) of Iran reported in 2007 that they had smashed a squirrel spying ring. Fourteen squirrels were reportedly captured by intelligence officers in the border region of Iran, each allegedly sporting listening devices. The British Foreign Office reacted in characteristic deadpan fashion, stating “The story is nuts.”


Hamas captured a dolphin off the coast of Gaza in August 2015 and accused Israel of equipping the animal with spying devices. Israel did not respond to the allegations, but it would not be the first time a dolphin has been used in the military. The U.S. Navy has long had a program to train these highly intelligent animals, but rather than being trained to kill, the dolphins are used for peaceful missions to identify mines and underwater threats.


A plucky Egyptian fisherman captured what he thought was a swan wearing a suspicious electronic device in 2013. As pictures of the jailed bird emerged, it soon became clear that it looked more like a stork. This mistaken identity did not prevent the Egyptians from accusing the French of training the bird as a spy. The incident soon blew over when it was revealed the swan/stork was in fact wearing a tracking device in order for academics to study its migration routes.


Declassified documents released by Britain’s National Archives reveal that two cats and a dog were suspected of spying for the Germans during World War I. The cats and dog had been observed frequently crossing the British trenches on the Flanders front line, arousing suspicions that they may have been carrying messages from the Germans. The archives reveal that the British were keen to capture the animals but unfortunately no records survive to indicate if they achieved their goal.


Although these stories may seem far-fetched, there have been incidences where intelligence agencies explored the idea of animal espionage. Declassified CIA documents revealed a 1960s effort to wire up a cat as a remote listening device, with its tail used as an antenna. The project, dubbed “Acoustic Kitty,” was abandoned after the unlucky feline was sent into a park to eavesdrop on some men sitting on a bench but was run over by a taxi before it could get into position.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless noted otherwise.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]