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9 Shameless Abuses of Diplomatic Immunity

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Diplomatic immunity may be intended to keep diplomats from running afoul of local authorities while serving abroad, but some workers take it as a license to act like jerks. While the Vienna Conventions on International Relations of 1961 outline a series of safeguards that protect diplomats from being unfairly punished should tempers flare between their country and their host nations, more than a few diplomats have taken advantage of their privileges in an irritating way. Here are just a few annoying little liberties diplomats have taken.


The most common manifestation of this inconsiderate behavior involves diplomats' parking. Just ask New Yorkers; diplomats at the United Nations apparently view Manhattan as their private parking lot. Back in 1996, diplomats racked up 143,508 parking summons, which would have cost them $15.8 million if not for diplomatic immunity. Russia alone was responsible for 32,000 of those fines.


A few hundred thousand unpaid tickets look like downright responsible behavior when compared to former Afghan diplomat Shah Mohammad Dost's antics behind the wheel. In 1987, Dost was accused of intentionally running a woman over in order to get a parking spot during a trip to an air conditioner store in Queens. According to the victim, her boyfriend was backing into the spot when Dost rolled up and demanded they cede the space to him because he was an Afghan diplomat. When they refused, Dost threw his Lincoln into gear and ran the woman over, sending her to the hospital.


Here's a case where diplomatic immunity didn't work out quite as well as a diplomat had hoped. In 1975, a UN delegate from Barbados claimed that diplomatic immunity extended to his pooch, who had bitten several people. The delegate warned police officers of "possible international consequences" if they tried to contain the aggressive German shepherd. Nice try, but Fido's not exactly negotiating trade treaties.

A Mexican diplomat got the same rude awakening in 1984. Military attaché Enrique Flores was keeping a pack of 10 basset hounds at his Virginia home in violation of local zoning laws. Even though the laws stated that Flores could only have four hounds at once, he appealed to the State Department for diplomatic immunity. The State Department turned him down. Guess they're cat people.


In 1989, Mozambique's representative to the United Nations wanted to divorce his American wife, so he waived his diplomatic immunity in order to take the matter to court. Unfortunately for the diplomat, Antonio Fernandez, he didn't fare well in the case; he ended up losing the couple's $5 million estate in the decision. Whoops.

Fernandez didn't suffer from any shortage of gall, though. After losing the decision he attempted to invoke his diplomatic immunity privileges to keep from paying his ex-wife. Fernandez took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, but in the end his former love got the couple's Greenwich, Connecticut, estate.


In 2010, a Qatari diplomat ran into trouble on a Washington-to-Denver flight when he decided to have a smoke in the plane's lavatory. To make things worse, Mohammed Al-Madadi also made a joke that some passengers and flight personnel perceived to be a terrorist threat. Air marshals sounded various alarms, and in the end two F-16 fighter jets escorted the flight to its final destination. While diplomatic immunity kept Al-Madadi from being charged with any crimes, the Qatari government sent him home to help smooth things over.


The residents of New Rochelle, New York, found themselves with a common problem in 2008: one house in the community had become a real eyesore. It sat vacant for years as weeds took over the yard, the paint began peeling, and the property slipped into an ugly state of decay. New Rochelle had a problem, though: the dilapidated house had a sort of diplomatic immunity that protected it from local ordinances. Somalia owned the house, which it occasionally used to house United Nations diplomats. Since the vacant house was exempt from taxes, the town couldn't use liens or other penalties to force the Somalians to do a little landscaping. The lesson here: if you want to stop mowing your lawn, join the Foreign Service.


A word of advice to landlords out there: if diplomats want to rent one of your properties, you might want to get a hefty security deposit. Just ask some of Manhattan's biggest landlords. A 1996 New York Times story illustrated the difficulty of renting to diplomats; landlords really don't have any legal mechanism through which they can collect delinquent rent or evict diplomatic tenants. At the time the article was written, one West African country was over $20,000 behind in its rent checks for a pair of luxury apartments in midtown Manhattan.

If you or I pulled a stunt like that, we'd be out on the streets. But diplomats enjoy a special kind of immunity known as "inviolability," which states that the private residences of diplomats can't be entered by the host country's agents without the visiting country's consent. In short, the only way you can evict foreign diplomats is if their home nation gives you the thumbs-up first.


Diplomatic behavior is not, apparently, a prerequisite for becoming a diplomat. In 1984, six Iranian diplomats caused a stink in London by taking a sheep from a house and cutting its throat in the street. The ritual public slaughter of an animal is generally frowned upon, but since the men had diplomatic immunity the British authorities were powerless to charge them with violating animal cruelty laws.


He should have just paid that checked baggage fee. In March, a North Korean diplomat to Bangladesh was detained when he refused to let customs officials scan his carry-on at Dhaka’s airport. After more than four hours of arguing that his diplomatic immunity protected him from having to submit to security screenings, the diplomat finally assented – at which point, officials discovered approximately $1.4 million worth of illegal gold hidden in his bag. Though charges were never brought against the envoy to North Korea – which, due to financial sanctions, is restricted in its ability to transport money internationally – he was reportedly sent back home by his boss, ambassador Ri Song-hyon.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.