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Rocking the House, the Kasbah and the Yurt

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The globalization of everything and anything has pushed heavy metal to the four corners of the earth, and a surprising number of countries are home to burgeoning metal scenes (Namibian speed metal! Israeli stoner rock!) In some parts of the world, playing in "“ or even listening to "“ a metal band is seen as an attempt to tear down the foundations of society. Here are a few instances where loud guitars, black t-shirts and libërally äpplied ümlaüts have caused tension between governments and their headbanging citizens.

Morocco

In March 2003, a Casablanca club promoted a triple billing of Moroccan heavy metal bands. Metal fans arrived expecting to see Nekros, Infected Brain and Reborn tear through their sets. Instead, the nine musicians (and five fans) were arrested for "acts capable of undermining the faith of a Muslim" and "possessing objects which infringe morals." Local media accused them of being "Satanists" involved in an international devil-worshipping cult. The judge, who claimed that "normal people go to concerts in a suit and tie," sentenced all 14 men to jail sentences, lasting from one month to a year.

The sentences prompted immediate protests. A benefit concert was organized and 500 people, many wearing black t-shirts with band logos that the judge found detestable, held a demonstration outside the parliament building in Rabat. The case went to appeal and 11 of the 14 men were acquitted. The remaining three had their sentences cut.

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More than 2,000 years ago, China built the Great Wall to repel invaders from the north. But it didn't do much good in 2004, when the Mongols attempted a modern-day invasion, bearing not swords, but a hit album. Hurd was touring in support of "I Was Born in Mongolia," their latest collection of Mongolian-pride songs, and planned a concert in Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The Wall didn't stop Hurd's tour bus, so riot police descended on the college campus where the group was supposed to play, dispersed 2,000+ fans and detained several of them for questioning. The Chinese authorities spent the next few days shutting down Mongolian-language Internet chat forums to keep a tight lid on the whole ordeal.

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The Chinese-Soviet split in the 1960s separated Mongolia, a Soviet satellite nation, from Inner Mongolia, a region of China. Inner Mongolia is home to four million ethnic Mongolians (double the number in Mongolia), but they're outnumbered by the 18 million Han Chinese that have migrated there and are separated by both physical and abstract borders from their countrymen in Mongolia. Ethnic minorities always make the Chinese nervous, and Hurd, whose nationalism makes them something like the Mongolian version of Bruce Springsteen, are seen as downright dangerous. Their concerts are raided, music shops that sell their albums are shut down and their CDs and tapes are confiscated from fans. Many Mongolians fear a clampdown on their cultural expression, but Hurd soldiers on, and even played a concerts in the US and Europe last year.

Malaysia

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A little over two years ago, the highest Islamic authority in Malaysia up and decided that there should be a ban on black metal"¦sort of. While they decided that the metal subgenre "“ associated with the church-burning hi-jinks of a handful of Norwegian bands "“ was "way against the law" and could "cause listeners to rebel against the country's prevailing religion," the ban is a little confusing to this day. Simply listening to black metal music is not against the law, and the penalties for being in a black metal band or going to a black metal concert weren't clarified. The Malaysian Islamic Development Department, as far as I know, is still working with state religious departments to amend the shariah laws to give power to the government to "act against" those "engaging in black metal culture."

While the specifics are still sort of vague, enforcement started soon after the ban and the government ordered state-run radio and television to play less heavy metal music, and began requiring foreign groups to submit videotapes of performances for approval before playing concerts in Malaysia.

Iraq

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Some people just have bad luck. Take Firas, Faisal, Tony and Marwan, for example. The four Iraqis, joined by a deep love for Metallica and Iron Maiden, formed Acrassicauda in 2001. A mere two years and three shows into their musical career, war came to Baghdad. American forces and Iraqi religious groups, Muslims and Christians, all considered the band bad news. In the US, being in a metal band means complaints about noise, in Morocco, it means arrest, but in war torn Baghdad, it meant death threats and being shot at.

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The band, the only heavy metal group in Iraq, held on for as long as they could and played three more shows in Baghdad as the war went on. Firas and Faisal, though, soon joined other war refugees and fled for Syria. In 2004, filmmakers from VBS.TV discovered the band and began filming their documentary, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which had its U.S. premier yesterday at SXSW. VBS set up a Paypal account on the film's website, so people could make donations to help get the band to a safe place and continue working on their music. Last year, they raised enough money to escape to Turkey, where they continue to live.

Egypt

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In what is probably the most bizarre government crackdown on heavy metal, the Egyptian government, in 1997, executed a series of late night raids and sent the state security police into private homes to arrest 70 people, from 16 to 25 years old, and confiscate posters, CDs, tapes and black t-shirts. The arrestees were fingerprinted, photographed, strip-searched and interrogated with questions like "Do you skin cats?" and "Do you spit on graves?" and "Do you hold pagan sacrifices?"

Two weeks after the arrests, state prosecutors gave up the case for lack of evidence. But months later, the Cairo Times reported that education ministry officials were still sifting through libraries and video collections in private schools for traces of anything that might promote devil worship.

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Let's end this on a happy note, shall we? For all the trouble it can get you in, heavy metal is still basically about rocking a killer riff and having a good time, and for all the problems of modern life in Israel, the country is home to one of the Middle East's best loved metal bands. Orphaned Land is the originator of what's become known as "Oriental metal," a blend of Asian and Arabic music and metal.
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The band is so beloved in the Middle East that it's possible to find a few Saudi metal heads with Orphaned Land tattoos. Think about that for second. Tattoos are forbidden in Islam, and this Islamic law is strictly enforced in Saudi Arabia. Yet there are Arab men walking around with an Israeli band's logo tattooed on their bodies. It's like Dee Snider said: "You can't stop rock and roll."

Matt Soniak is an intern for mental_floss. You can read his own blog here. And when he's not writing, he dresses like this:
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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