Original image

What's Going on in Yemen?

Original image

In Spring of 2010, Haley Sweetland Edwards took us on a tour of Yemen for the Spinning the Globe section of mental_floss magazine. Here's her explanation of the current situation, followed by an excerpt from last year's Yemen feature.

© YAHYA ARHAB/epa/Corbis

Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world. It’s economy has flat-lined. It’s facing one of the world’s worst water crises. And for the last seven years, it has been wracked by three separate on-again, off-again civil wars: a Shia rebellion in the north, a separatist insurgency in the south, and a war against al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist organization’s scarily powerful Yemen-based branch.

So what exactly is going on in Yemen right now?

Here’s the CliffsNotes version.

After the Egyptian rebellion, a handful of idealistic young men and women took to the streets, calling for the immediate end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule. They wanted a new government, a real democracy, anti-corruption measures and, in a place where unemployment levels hover around 40 percent, they wanted a chance at getting a job. This youth movement was, and has continued to be, entirely peaceful. That’s no small fact in a country where there are more than enough guns for every man, woman and child.

© YAHYA ARHAB/epa/Corbis

The violence you’re hearing about on the news this week is the result of three separate, if loosely related, battles. The first is one-sided, and involves Yemeni troops and security forces brutally crushing protesters’ tents and open firing into peaceful demonstrations in cities like the capital, the port city of Aden, and Taiz.

The second is a revenge battle between forces loyal to Saleh and those loyal to the al-Ahmar family, which heads the most powerful tribal confederacy in Yemen. Last week, al-Ahmar tribesmen attacked Saleh’s presidential palace, killing seven and seriously wounding Saleh, who was whisked off to Saudi Arabia last weekend for medical treatment.

The third battle is an uptick in U.S. drone attacks on suspected al-Qaeda militants in Yemen’s mountainous countryside. This is a shadowy, poorly reported war that is hopelessly complicated by the fact that al-Qaeda operatives are taking advantage of the chaos in Yemen right now by mingling with other rebels and anti-government militants.

What happens next in Yemen is anyone’s guess. Saleh is expected to return to Sana’a next week, according the Yemeni Embassy in D.C. If and when he does, the future of Yemen will depend to a large degree on whether or not he’s willing to step down, make peace with the al-Ahmar family, and allow for a transition of power. If he’s not, we may very well watch this beautiful, long-teetering country finally tip.

* * * * *

Yemen: The 50-Cent Tour

NRA Heaven

Yemen is one of the most heavily armed nations in the world. Some studies have indicated that there are as many as 17 million guns in the country and that about 75 percent of the male population packs heat. (Women there don’t generally own guns.) Other studies put that number closer to 60 million, indicating that about 98 percent of Yemeni men own at least one weapon; most own four or five.

Many Yemeni boys receive their first gun as a rite of passage in their teenage years and keep it their entire lives. In the countryside, particularly in places where there are long-standing tribal feuds, men often shop for vegetables, visit neighbors, and drink tea, all with their AK-47s in tow.

Until recently, men could buy weapons easily at massive arms markets scattered around Yemen. But in 2007, the government began a disarmament campaign that required weapons to be registered. This led many arms dealers to move underground. Today, most Yemenis buy their weapons on the black market with relative ease. The government also made it illegal to carry firearms in major cities, such as the capital of Sana’a. Still, it’s common to see young boys playing in the streets of Sana’a with plastic toy AK-47s slung over their backs.

Khat Fancy

Two-thirds of Yemenis chew khat. (Also spelled kat and qat in English, making it a useful Scrabble word.) It’s a mild narcotic that often makes people feel more alert and motivated. Many people chew the leaves every day for about four or five hours after lunch, and it’s not uncommon to see taxi drivers, store keepers, clerks, and policemen with a wad in their cheeks.

At first, the drug acts as a social lubricant. As one Yemeni man put it, “It makes you talk like a teenage girl.” But as the effects of the drug wear on, people tend to become more introspective and goal-oriented. “Every time I chew, I promise myself I’m going to do push-ups every night and finally write a book,” reported another Yemeni man. “I never do.”

While khat remains a major part of Yemeni culture, some believe it should be outlawed. It can cause liver damage and ulcers, and it’s bad for teeth. Khat is also surprisingly expensive to buy and grow, because the trees require tons of water. In fact, khat cultivation is contributing to the nation’s dire water crisis.

Ancient Romans nicknamed Yemen “Happy Arabia,” thanks to the country’s booming trade. Back then, camel caravans delivered more than 3,000 tons of frankincense to Rome and Greece every year.

My Big Fat Yemeni Wedding

If you’re planning to get married in Yemen, the first thing you need to know is that Yemeni weddings are not coed. The men usually convene in a banquet hall, a tent, or a courtyard, where they listen to music, take pictures, and chew khat with other men. The women meet at the groom’s parents’ house, or another house in the neighborhood, where they listen to music, dance, ululate (a kind of celebratory yodeling), and, of course, chew khat.

After three or four days of gender-segregated celebrations, the groom is led into the room where the bride is staying. That’s typically the first time the couple meets, as arranged marriages are still the norm. Then, the guests wait until the bride and groom emerge from the room, signifying that they’ve “sealed the deal.” At this point, the men fire guns and fireworks into the air, and the women ululate some more. A good time is had by all.

Uncle Saddam

Yemenis have a thing for Saddam Hussein. It all started during the first Gulf War, when Yemen sided with Iraq. “He is a Muslim who stood up to the superpower,” explained one storekeeper. Thousands of boys born around that time are named Saddam in his honor. Then, when the United States invaded Iraq again in 2003, Saddam became a national hero. If you’re ever in the market for a canvas bag or a cigarette lighter with Saddam Hussein’s smiling face on it, just head over to downtown Sana’a.

This Old City

The medieval architecture of the Old City of Sana’a, the capital’s historic district, is both magical and dilapidated. It’s like a castle made out of gingerbread that’s been delicately frosted and then rediscovered months later in the back of a cabinet. It’s home to 103 mosques, 14 bathhouses, and more than 6,000 houses built into towers—and much of it was constructed before the 11th century. The entire district has been designated a UNESCO Heritage Site, with the hope that it will be protected and renovated carefully. Unfortunately, due to dwindling funds and a bankrupt government, more and more of the old houses are collapsing every year.

Yemen’s port city of Mocha was once famous for its coffee exports. Its java had a distinctive chocolate flavor that made it a hit in Europe—and led to the misnomer of mocha meaning chocolate-flavored coffee. Mocha originally—and more accurately—referred to quality Arabian coffee.

The Meaning of Knife

Lots of Yemeni men wear thick, foot-long curved daggers strapped to their waists, just above their bellybuttons. The daggers, called jambiyas (jam-BEE-yas), have been a part of the traditional Yemeni dress since way back before Islam hit the scene. Historically, a man’s jambiya was his prized possession, passed down from one generation to the next. It was at once a weapon, a status symbol, and an investment, because the daggers often appreciate over time. Nowadays, jambiyas are still highly valued, and many Yemeni men, especially in the north, wear them to work, to school, and just to hang out.

Crude Politics

Yemen’s economy is in a world of hurt. For starters, it’s almost entirely dependent on the waning oil and gas industry, which supplies 70 percent of the government’s revenue and accounts for 90 percent of the nation’s exports. According to a 2008 World Bank report, the oil and gas reserves will dry up over the next decade, and the oil fields could be tapped out as early as 2017.

The other four large sectors of the economy—tourism, fisheries, trade, and agriculture—aren’t doing well, either. Tourism is particularly weak. In 2007, local al-Qaeda operatives began killing Westerners at major tourist attractions, and Spring Break Yemen has been a tough sell ever since. These days, an estimated 35 percent of Yemeni men are unemployed.

Getting Your Bearings

Where is Yemen? Just south of Saudi Arabia, on the heel of the Arabian Peninsula.

Major Industry: Oil and gas.

Capital City: Sana’a. It’s also the country’s largest city, with a population of 1.8 million people.

Kids Rule! Of the roughly 23 million people living in Yemen, about 46 percent of them are under the age of 14. And the baby boom has only just begun. Yemen’s population is expected to double over the next two decades.

How Old is Yemen? Tough question. People have been living in the area for about 5,000 years. The Romans occupied Yemen, as did the Ottomans and the British. But in some ways, Yemen is only 20 years old. During the Cold War, political strife created two separate nations, pro-Western North Yemen and socialist South Yemen. The two states reunified in 1990 to form the modern country, which acts as a parliamentary democracy.

Made in Yemen: Over the past 5,000 years, Yemenis have given the world coffee, honey, the Queen of Sheba, and a hilarious episode of Friends in which Chandler tries to break up with his girlfriend by pretending to move to Yemen. But in December 2009, Yemen also gave the world the Underwear Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who made headlines by attempting to detonate explosives hidden in his pants on a flight to Detroit. Although Abdulmutallab is from Nigeria, he received his training from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is a freelance reporter living and working in the Caucasus and the Middle East. Her reporting has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Washington Monthly, Foreign Policy online, New York Magazine online, The National, New York Times online, Slate, and, of course, mental_floss magazine.

She'll be joining us regularly here on later this month.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]