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14 Secrets of Secret Service Agents

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On the day he was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln approved the formation of the United States Secret Service, a government agency tasked with protecting the integrity of the nation’s currency. In 1901, after the assassination of President William McKinley, Congress extended their duties to involve the protection of the president.

As the name implies, the organization is extremely guarded when it comes to discussing details of their methods, but that doesn’t mean we’re completely in the dark. We spoke with former agent Tim Wood, along with journalists Ronald Kessler and Jeffrey Robinson (all authors of books about the Secret Service), to learn more about how the agency insulates the leader of the free world from harm, the sometimes surprisingly low-tech anti-threat tactics they use, and how the Oval Office can safely order a pizza.

1. THEY TRAVEL WITH BAGS OF THE PRESIDENT’S BLOOD.

Although thousands of agents are employed by the Secret Service, only a small number are assigned to the Presidential Protection Division (PPD), the branch of the agency responsible for guarding the lives of the commander in chief and their family. According to Jeffrey Robinson, co-author of former agent Joseph Petro’s autobiography Standing Next to History, the division is methodical about making sure agents are trained in “ten-minute medicine,” or doing everything possible to keep the president alive until he or she can receive specialized medical attention in the event of an emergency.

“When they travel, they’re never more than 10 minutes away from a trauma center,” Robinson says. “They’ll have an agent posted at the hospital who knows the operating room staff.” Additionally, the travel group will have bags of blood in the president’s motorcade in the event a transfusion is needed.

The focus on emergency medicine training helped save Ronald Reagan's life during a 1981 assassination attempt. After being shot, Reagan thought he had suffered only a minor rib injury, and the plan was to take him to the White House, considered the safest place in the capital. But in the president's limo, Agent Jerry Parr noticed frothy red blood coming from Reagan's mouth—a sign he had been bleeding from the lungs. The decision was quickly made to reroute Reagan to the hospital, where doctors discovered Reagan had been shot in the lung. The president endured several hours of surgery and post-operative complications before making a complete recovery.

2. THEY MAKE SURE THE PRESIDENT IS NEVER ALONE. EVEN IN THE BATHROOM.

Being on protective detail means following the president wherever he or she might go. This includes the bathroom, the doctor’s office, or anywhere that might benefit from a little privacy. “The president is never alone,” Robinson says. “When Reagan was in office, Joe was there for his prostate exams and colonoscopies. He was always in the room with a gun. And if he thought the doctor was any kind of threat, he would’ve shot him.”

3. THEY INTERVIEW POTENTIAL ASSASSINS.

While making a threat against the president’s life is never a good idea, it’s up to agents to determine whether you should be warned, committed for psychiatric evaluation, or charged with a Class E felony. According to 23-year Secret Service veteran Tim Wood, author of Criminals and Presidents: The Adventures of a Secret Service Agent, this is called “protective intelligence.” Any time someone makes a suggestion of wanting to cause the president harm, every aspect of their lives will be investigated. “We interview friends, neighbors, associates, employees,” Wood says. “The question is, ‘Is this person serious?’” When Wood interviewed a man who had made repeated calls threatening Reagan’s life, he determined the subject had an alcohol problem and possible mental illness, sparing him serious prosecution.

4. THEY CAN BE ORDERED TO PROTECT ANYONE.

Presidents and vice-presidents don’t have the ability to refuse Secret Service supervision once they take office, although some can switch to private security detail once they’ve served their term.

However, they do have a say in whether someone else can be assigned Secret Service protection. According to Ronald Kessler, author of In the President’s Secret Service, agents started to escort some White House staff members following the September 11 attacks at the behest of George W. Bush. “It’s a fairly recent development,” Kessler says. Among other duties, agents can accompany children to school, standing outside classrooms until the lesson is over.

5. THEY FILM THE PRESIDENT IN CASE SOMETHING HAPPENS.

For all of the controversy it created, the Zapruder film of the 1963 John F. Kennedy assassination was invaluable in helping the Secret Service understand how quickly a situation can spin out of control. To this day, agents still screen the footage as part of their training. According to Kessler, they also film current presidential motorcades in the event they need to review an attack. “Recently, someone threw something at Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago,” Kessler says. “They were able to locate the person thanks to video.”

6. THE FOOD IS UNDER CONSTANT SURVEILLANCE.

“If you send the president a Christmas ham, it’ll never get to him,” Robinson says. Every bite of food presented to the president is prepared under the watchful eye of the Secret Service, who stare down White House chefs to make sure no one is flavoring with arsenic or rat poison. When the president travels, Navy stewards come along to prepare food. And when the president has a photo-op at a diner and orders food, it’s not likely he’s going to eat it.

Surprisingly, it’s still possible to just order a pizza. “If the president wants a pizza, they’ll have it delivered to the Naval Observatory or another address nearby,” Robinson says. “Since the [pizzeria] doesn’t know who it’s for, it reduces the danger.”

7. HOTELS HATE THEM.

When the president travels, the Secret Service kicks into overdrive, scouting hotel destinations in an attempt to control a foreign environment. Hotel employees who will be in contact with the government entourage are subject to background checks. “If anyone has a criminal history, the hotel manager will ask them not to come in that day,” Kessler says. The Secret Service will also take over entire floors above and below the president and commandeer elevators for their own private use, which can disrupt a hotel’s business. They’ll even keep an elevator repairman on standby in the event the POTUS gets stuck.

8. THEY HAVE A WAY OF TRACKING YOU, AND IT’S IN YOUR DESK DRAWER RIGHT NOW.

When the White House receives troubling or threatening hand-written correspondence, agents have a way of narrowing down their search for subjects. Kessler says that the Secret Service, working in tandem with ink manufacturers, maintains a vast database of distinctive “tags” in the ink that can be identified and narrowed to the brand and where in the country it’s sold. “It’s similar to the way explosives manufacturers identify material,” he says.

9. “WORKING THE ROPE” IS THE MOST NERVE-WRACKING PART OF THE JOB.

According to Wood, no other detail duty is quite as stressful as dealing with impromptu presidential greetings with private citizens standing behind a roped-off area. “That’s where agents earn their money,” he says. “You have no idea what an uncontrolled crowd might do.” To minimize threats, agents are constantly scanning for hands stuffed in pockets or other signs of suspicious activity. Their omnipresent sunglasses? Those are for crowd-scanning without tipping off potential suspects, and to ward off any liquids or other projectiles thrown in their direction.

10. THEY TEND TO PICK UP NEW HOBBIES.

Because the president is never without an escort, Secret Service agents are often forced to learn new hobbies. Wood didn’t have any experience riding horses when he accompanied Bill Clinton for rides during his two terms. “Fortunately, Clinton was not a master horseman like Reagan, so it was just a simple trail ride,” Wood says. But Clinton was a well-conditioned jogger, which forced agents to be in great shape in order to be able to keep up. “You’re doing your job while running for five miles,” Wood says.

11. THERE’S NO SWORN OATH TO DIE FOR THE PRESIDENT.

Despite Hollywood’s depictions of life in the Service, agents never have to explicitly “swear” to give up their life in order to protect the president. “They never utter that sentence,” Kessler says. “It’s understood that something like that could happen, but they take every possible step to avoid it.”

12. THEIR LIMO IS STRAIGHT OUT OF A JAMES BOND MOVIE.

When the president is on the road, he’s typically in a very heavily armored limousine that’s flat-tire-proof, bulletproof, and driven by agents with extensive experience in defensive driving. According to Wood, agents are trained to perform a 180-degree turn in the event of a road block or explosion. Both the limo and other vehicles used by the president are serviced by a Secret Service garage, which makes modifications to commercial vehicles to make them more attack-resistant.

13. THEY GET SHOT WITH FAKE BULLETS.

In order to prepare for any eventuality, agents undergo regular and rigorous scenario training, with an agent acting as a stand-in for the president while other agents try to navigate threats. To make the simulation effective, Wood says that the training incorporates non-lethal "marking rounds," or plastic bullets that leave a colored trace and a superficial sting. “Instead of a blank going off, you’d know if you’ve been hit or where you hit your target,” he says.

14. THEY DON’T CARRY BAGS, SO DON’T ASK.

The quickest way to annoy a Secret Service agent? Ask them to carry your luggage or grocery bags. “[Vice-President] Walter Mondale once asked an agent to pick up laundry,” Robinson says. “They don’t do that.”

All images courtesy of Getty/iStock.

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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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