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4 Quick Stories About Iran's Supreme Leader

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While the protests in Iran continue to rage on, it might help to gain a bit of perspective on the country's leadership. Since 1979, the ultimate ruling power has been in the hands of the Supreme Leader "“ not the president.

Iran is currently under the rule of its second leader, Ali Hoseyni Khamenei (the first, you'll remember, was the leader of the '79 revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini, who died in June of 1989). With just over two decades of authority under his belt, Khamenei remains an obscure figure on the international political scene. We're just going to skip over the standard biographical details, however, to bring you these four quick stories:

1. He sticks to his word about America

In June of 1981, a few months before Khamenei was elected as Iran's president, his political career nearly ended with a bang. While he was speaking at a Tehran mosque, a bomb disguised as a tape recorder went off in front of him, leaving his right arm permanently damaged and injuring his vocal cords.

But what does this have to do with his attitude towards the West? Khamenei was one of the leaders in the 1979 riots, in which protesters rejected the U.S.-backed shah and denounced the United States' leadership and culture. When the future Ayatollah was offered American medical care for his injuries from the bomb blast, he turned it down. The reason? He realized he couldn't yell "Death to America!" in good conscience if he had been taken care of by the country's medical system.

2. He once stormed out of a state dinner

khamenei 2In 1986, a dinner was held in Zimbabwe to honor President Khamenei. But, as the New York Times reported in an article headlined "The Man Who Almost Came to Dinner," the president wasn't at all happy with how the dinner had been arranged: "Mr. Khamenei objected to seating arrangements, which placed two women at the head table, and to the inclusion of wine on the menu."

To Khamenei, the women and liquor were violations of Islamic law. But when his Zimbabwean hosts refused to compromise, saying that women were crucial to the country's mission, the president left. The dinner being held in his honor went on without him.

3. He can be a tad thin-skinned

If you believe the Iranian leadership's critics, the current protests are the beginning of Khamenei's undoing. Just in case that comes to pass, Iranian expatriates who have a beef with the Ayatollah's personality are coming out of the woodwork. Azar Nafisi, an academic now living in the U.S., told the New York Times that the Supreme Leader was not at all happy with those who dared disagree with him. "Khamenei would always come and say, "˜Shut up; what I say goes,'" Nafisi says. "Everyone would say, "˜O.K., it is the word of the leader.'"

This description is backed up by a story told in a report from The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They wrote last year that "criticism of the [Supreme] Leader is one of the few remaining redlines in Iranian politics, almost a guarantee of a prison sentence." And the taboo about criticizing Khamenei isn't limited by bloodline. The Grand Ayatollah's brother, a reformist cleric named Hadi Khamenei, delivered a sermon criticizing the powers of the Supreme Leader. Hadi was subsequently beaten up by members of the Basij militia, which reports to Iran's infamous Revolutionary Guard.

4. He argued for the rights of African-Americans

According to a 1984 article in the Times, when Khamenei was president (1981-1989), he called for the creation of an international committee to review the living conditions of black Americans. According to the national Iranian press agency, the ultimate goal of the proposed committee would be to "bring the U.S. Government to trial."

Khamenei is quoted by the press agency as saying, "a great majority of the blacks in the United States live in miserable conditions and do not have the least facilities for their daily living."

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]