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Happy 20th Birthday, Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan!

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Kristina Postnikova / Shutterstock.com

The largest country in Central Asia—it’s as big as all of Western Europe combined—turns 20 years old today, and to celebrate, here’s a list of ten random facts about everyone’s favorite Kazakh-speaking ‘Stan.

1. For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Borat, the fictional reporter invented by the English comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, hails from Kazakhstan. In Baron Cohen’s 2006 blockbuster movie, Borat describes his native land in less than flattering terms, as an impoverished region where prostitution and child marriage are rife, and people drink “horse urine” for fun. In response to such bad—if genuinely comedic—publicity, the Kazakhstan government bought full-page ads in The New York Times and the U.S. News and World Report, and commercials on CNN and the local ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., begging Americans to get to know the real Kazakhstan, too.

2. How You Like Them Apples?
Those Granny Smiths sitting in your fruit bowl right now? They’re the great- great- great- granddaughters of wild apples, Malus sieversii, which are originally from modern-day Kazakhstan. According to Christopher Robbins’ 2008 travel book, Apples Are From Kazakstan (required reading for any visitor of that wind-parched land), the wild apples were brought to the Middle East 2,300 years ago, where they were cultivated and eventually exported worldwide.

3. Tiptoe Through the…

Tulips are from the mountains within, and surrounding, modern-day Kazakhstan, too. They were also later cultivated in Turkey and then exported to Europe, causing what historians refer to as “Tulipmania” in the Netherlands. The 17th-century Dutch were reportedly so taken with the waxen flowers that a single bulb was sometimes sold for the price of an entire house in Amsterdam.

4. Horsing Around
Horses and cattle have been so vital to nomadic Kazakh culture for so long, a common greeting in the countryside asks not if you are OK, but “Are your cattle OK?” A 2009 archeological study found that people in modern day Kazakhstan are among the first in the world to tame horses, and to use them for riding, work, milk and meat. Besparmak, boiled hunks of horsemeat, is still on traditional Kazakh menus today.

5. King Arthur was a Kazakh?
According to Robbins’ book, the famous, supposedly Celtic, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table may have actually been Kazakh horsemen. While that’s hardly a point of historical certainty, Robbins describes the claim as “serious scholarly speculation.” And it kind of makes sense: If King Arthur lived at all, he would have lived around 1500 years ago—right around the time that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius sent thousands of cavalrymen from modern-day Kazakhstan to defend the fringes of the Roman Empire in the modern British Isles. The commander of those Central Asian cavalrymen just happened to be named Lucius Artorius Castus, or “Artyr” in Welsh.

6. Stung
Despite its gorgeous, lunar countryside—not to mention its handful of historical claims to fame—Kazakhstan, led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, remains a largely repressive, corrupt and undemocratic bastion for some pretty grim human rights abuses. In July this year, the famous English rocker, Sting, cancelled a concert the day before it was scheduled—on President Nazarbayev’s birthday, no less—in the Kazakh capital, citing human rights concerns.

7. The Naked Truth
In June this year, one of Kazakhstan’s most famous and fearless investigative journalists, Guljan Yergaliyeva, quit her job as editor of a major Kazakh newspaper and started her own news website. To publicize the new portal, Yergaliyeva released an advertisement on YouTube in she strips down to a pair of shiny stilettos, leaving viewers with nothing more than the site’s chirpy slogan: “Better the naked truth than a dandy lie.” We’d like to have seen Walter Cronkite perform stunt like that.

8. Big Buildings

kzww / Shutterstock.com

The World’s Biggest Tent, built by world-famous architect Norman Foster, is in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. But that’s not all: Astana, this futuristic, frigid blip upon the Kazakh steppe, was built by the sheer force of will of President Nazarbayev, who also commissioned a massive pyramid (also built by Foster), a shimmering concert hall (a nod to the Sydney Opera House), and a rather hideous tower, called the Bayterek (pictured), shaped like a Poplar tree crowed by a giant golden egg and decorated by—what else?—Nazarbayev’s gilded hand print.

9. Family Feud!
Politics in Kazakhstan are fifty percent ex-Soviet machinations and fifty percent afternoon soap opera. For example, for the last half-decade, President Nazarbayev has been locked in feisty, international power struggle—alternately described as a “war of attrition” and a “blood feud” by Western newspapers—with his former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev. Aliyev, who has publically criticized his father-in-law’s human rights abuses, has also been accused of torturing people. Both men's names bubble up in political gossip circles from D.C. to Beijing.

10. Dances With Horses
An equestrian-themed dance craze has been sweeping Kazakhstan for the last couple years, with flash mobs the size of small cities gathering in malls, streets and public parks to perform a galloping traditional dance, called Kara Zhorga. In September this year, nearly 60,000 people turned out on the streets of Oskemen, a city in eastern Kazakhstan, according to EurasiaNet. The year before, 15,000 turned out in the western city of Atyrau to shake, shimmy and gallop the night away. Giddy-up!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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