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8 Conspiracy Theories and What They Get Right

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Grab your tinfoil hats. It’s time to get paranoid.

Conspiracy #1: The government is trying to control my mind.

The Truth: The government has invested millions in mind control technologies.

Who doesn’t want a telepathic ray gun? The U.S. Army sure does. It’s already researched a device that could beam words into your skull, according to the 1998 report "Bioeffects of Selected Nonlethal Weapons." The report says that, with the help of special microwaves, “this technology could be developed to the point where words could be transmitted to be heard like the spoken word, except that it could only be heard within a person’s head.” The device could “communicate with hostages” and could “facilitate a private message transmission.”

In 2002, the Air Force Research laboratory patented a similar microwave device. Rep. Dennis Kucinich seemed concerned, because one year earlier, he proposed the Space Preservation Act, which called for a ban of all “Psychotronic weapons.” It didn’t pass.

The mind games don’t stop there. The CIA’s massive mind control experiment, Project MKUltra, remains the pet project of paranoid people everywhere. Beginning in the early 1950s, the CIA started asking strange questions in memos, like:

“Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?”

In April 1953, the CIA decided to find out. The Agency wanted to develop drugs that could manipulate Soviet spies and foreign leaders—essentially, a truth serum. The CIA brimmed with other ideas, too, but Director Allen Dulles complained that there weren’t enough “human guinea pigs to try these extraordinary techniques.”

That lack of test subjects drove the CIA to wander off the ethical deep-end, leading the Agency to experiment on unwitting Americans.

About 80 institutions—44 of them colleges—housed MKUltra labs. There, the CIA toyed with drugs like LSD and heroin, testing if the substances “could potentially aid in discrediting individuals, eliciting information, and implanting suggestions and other forms of mental control.” The CIA tested LSD and barbiturates on mental patients, prisoners, and addicts. It also injected LSD in over 7000 military personnel without their knowledge. Many suffered psychotic episodes.

The CIA tried its hand at erasing people’s memories, too. Project ARTICHOKE tested how well hypnosis and morphine could induce amnesia. And when the CIA wasn’t trying to develop a memory-killing equivalent of the neurolyzer from Men in Black, it studied Chinese brainwashing techniques: Project QKHILLTOP examined ancient mind-scrambling methods to make interrogations easier.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, the CIA destroyed hundreds of thousands of MKUltra documents. Only 20,000 escaped the shredder, and the CIA shifted its efforts from mind control to clairvoyance. In the mid 1970s, it launched the Stargate Project, which studied the shadowy phenomenon of “remote viewing.” (That is, the CIA investigated if it were possible to see through walls—with your mind.) The project closed in 1995. A final memo concluded:

“Even though a statistically significant effect has been observed in the laboratory, it remains unclear whether the existence of a paranormal phenomenon, remote viewing, has been demonstrated.”

Conspiracy #2: The government is poisoning me.

The Truth: It poisoned alcohol supplies to curb drinking during prohibition.

Library of Congress

As the '20s roared, alcoholism soared. Booze was banned, but speakeasies were everywhere. Few people followed the law, so the Treasury Department started enforcing it differently—by poisoning the watering hole.  

Most liquor in the 1920s was made from industrial alcohol, used in paints, solvents, and fuel. Bootleggers stole about 60 million gallons a year, redistilling the swill to make it drinkable. To drive rumrunners away, the Treasury Department started poisoning industrial hooch with methyl alcohol. But bootleggers kept stealing it, and people started getting sick.

When dealers noticed something wrong, they hired chemists to renature the alcohol, making it drinkable again. Dismayed, the government threw a counterpunch and added more poison—kerosene, gasoline, chloroform, and higher concentrations of methyl alcohol. Again, it didn’t deter drinking; the booze business carried on as usual.

By 1928, most of the liquor circulating in New York City was toxic. Despite increased illness and death, the Treasury didn’t stop tainting industrial supplies until the 18th amendment was repealed in 1933.

Conspiracy #3: The government is trying to ruin my reputation.

The Truth: The FBI’s COINTELPRO did it for 15 years.

The FBI has never been a fan of critics. During the second Red Scare, the Bureau fought dissenters, launching a covert program called COINTELPRO. Its mission? To “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” rebellious people and groups.

Under COINTELPRO, the FBI oversaw 2000 subversive smear operations. Agents bugged phones, forged documents, and planted false reports to create a negative public image of dissenters. COINTELPRO targeted hate groups like the KKK, but it also kept close watch on the “New Left,” like civil rights marchers and women’s rights activists. It tracked Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, John Lennon, and Ernest Hemingway.

Few, however, were watched as closely as Martin Luther King Jr. After MLK gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, this memo floated through FBI offices:

“In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands heads and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negros. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

King became an unofficial Enemy of State. Agents tracked his every move, performing a “complete analysis of the avenues of approach aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader." When a wiretap revealed King’s extramarital affair, the FBI sent him an anonymous letter, predicting that blackmail was in his future. “You are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that,” the letter said. A month later, MLK accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

COINTELPRO shut down in 1971, although the FBI continued to monitor certain groups. In the 1990s, it tracked PETA and put members of Greenpeace on its terror watch list.

Conspiracy #4: The government is germ-bombing its own people.

The Truth: It was a common practice during the Cold War.

NASA

From 1940 to 1970, America was a giant germ laboratory. The U.S. Army wanted to assess how vulnerable America was to a biological attack, so it spread clouds of microbes and chemicals over populated areas everywhere.

In 1949, the Army Special Operations released bacteria into the Pentagon’s air conditioning system to observe how the microbes spread (the bacteria were reportedly harmless). In 1950, a U.S. Navy ship sprayed Serratia Marcescens—a common bacteria capable of minor infection—from San Francisco Bay. The bacteria floated over 30 miles, spread through the city, and may have caused one death.

A year later, during Operation DEW, the U.S. Army released 250 pounds of cadmium sulfide off the Carolina coast, which spread over 60,000 square miles. The military didn’t know that cadmium sulfide was carcinogenic, nor did it know that it could cause kidney, lung, and liver damage. In the 1960s, during Project 112 and Project SHAD, military personnel were exposed to nerve agents like VX and sarin and bacteria like E. coli without their knowledge. At least 134 similar experiments were performed.

President Nixon ended offensive tests of the US biological weapons program in 1969.

Conspiracy #5: The government is spreading disease with insects of war.

The Truth: You may have been attacked by a six-legged soldier, but you’re fine.

Wikimedia Commons

In 1955, the military dropped 330,000 yellow fever mosquitoes from an aircraft over Georgia. The campaign was cleverly called Operation Big Buzz, and the mosquitoes buzzed their way to residential areas. In 1956, Operation Drop Kick dropped 600,000 more mosquitoes over an Air Force base in Florida.

In both cases, the mosquitoes did not carry any disease. They were test weapons, part of the military’s entomological warfare team, which studied the bugs' ability to disperse and attack. Results found that the six-legged soldiers successfully feasted on humans and guinea pigs placed near the drop area.

In 1954, Operation Big Itch dropped 300,000 rat fleas in the Western Utah Desert. The military wanted to test if fleas could effectively carry and transmit disease. During one test, a bug-bomb failed to drop, cracking open inside the plane. The fleas swarmed the cabin, biting everybody aboard.

At the time, the military planned to build an insect farm, a facility that could produce 100 million infected mosquitoes per month. Multiple Soviet cities were marked with buggy bullseyes.

Conspiracy #6: The government has exposed me to harmful radiation.

The Truth: If you’re over 50, it’s possible.

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“It is desired that no documents be released which refers to experiments with humans and might have adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits. Documents covering such work field should be classified ‘secret.’” –Atomic Energy Commission memo, 1947

In the late 1980s, the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce released a damning report called “American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens.” The report spotlighted Operation Green Run, a military test at a Washington plutonium facility. There, in 1949, managers purposefully released a massive cloud of radioactive iodine-131 to test how far it could travel downwind. Iodine-131 and xenon-133 reportedly traveled as far as the California-Oregon border, infecting 500,000 acres. It’s believed that 8000 curies of radioactive iodine floated out of the factory. To put that into perspective, in 1979, Three Mile Island emitted around 25 curies of radioactive iodine.

The report showed that the military planned 12 similar radiation releases at other facilities.

The government sponsored smaller tests, too. In the late 1950s, mentally disabled children at Sonoma State Hospital were fed irradiated milk. None gave consent. In Tennessee, 829 pregnant mothers took a vitamin drink to improve their baby’s health. The mothers weren’t told the “vitamin” was actually radioactive iron. In Massachusetts, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission fed 73 mentally disabled children oatmeal. The secret ingredient? Radioactive calcium. (Officials told the kids that if they ate the porridge, they would join a “science club.”) From 1960 to 1971, the Department of Defense conducted whole body radiation experiments on black cancer patients, who thought they were receiving treatment. Instead, the DOD used the test to calculate how humans reacted to high levels of radiation.

The United States also conducted hundreds of unannounced nuclear tests. In 1957, Operation Plumbob saw 29 nuclear explosions boom in America’s southwest. The explosions, which 18,000 soldiers watched nearby, released 58 curies of radioactive iodine—enough radiation to cause 11,000 to 212,000 cases of thyroid cancer. Through the 1950s alone, over 400,000 people became “atomic veterans.” Many didn’t know it.

Conspiracy #7: The government is staging terrorist attacks on itself.

The Truth: Military officials once suggested staging phony terrorist attacks to justify war with Cuba.

Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1960s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed the impossible: an American attack on America. The plan suggested fake terrorist attacks on US cities and bases. The goal? To blame Cuba and drum up support for war.

Officials called the proposal Operation Northwoods. The original memo suggested that, “We could develop a communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities, and even in Washington.”

Northwoods suggested that US personnel could disguise themselves as Cuban agents. These undercover soldiers could burn ammunition and sink ships in the harbor at Guantanamo Bay. “We could blow up a US ship and blame Cuba,” the memo says.

Northwoods also included a plan to “sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated)" and suggested “an incident which will demonstrate that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a charter civil airline.” Officials planned to fake a commercial hijacking, secretly landing the plane while an identical drone crashed nearby.

When the attacks finished, the government would release incriminating documents “substantiating Cuban involvement. . .World opinion and the United Nations forum should be favorably affected by developing the international image of the Cuban government as rash and irresponsible.”

President Kennedy rejected the proposal.

Conspiracy #8: The government is manipulating the media.

The Truth: From 1948 to 1972, over 400 journalists secretly carried out assignments for the CIA.

If you think the spinning on news channels today is bad, imagine what it’d be like if the CIA still steered the ship. Under Operation Mockingbird, the CIA’s sticky fingers touched over 300 newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Washington Post.

Over 400 journalists were in cahoots with the CIA. They promoted the Agency’s views and provided services: spying in foreign countries, gathering intelligence, and publishing reports written by the Agency. Sometimes, CIA Head Frank Wisner commissioned journalists to write pro-government articles at home and abroad. And, as if a CIA spin weren’t enough, the Agency also paid editors to keep anti-government pieces off the presses. Journalists with ties to the CIA also planted false intelligence in newsrooms so that unconnected reporters would pick it up and write about it.

The CIA teamed up with journalists because many reporters had strong foreign ties. A journalist reporting from abroad could gather information that the CIA couldn’t, and he could plant propaganda better, too.

Although a congressional hearing in the 1970s put an end to inside jobs, Big Brother still manipulates markets elsewhere. In 2005, the government spent $300 million placing pro-American messages in foreign media outlets—an attempt to hamper extremists and sway support.

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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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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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