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Kim Jong Il's Awful Godzilla Film

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© kcna/Xinhua Press/Corbis

by Jessica Royer Ocken

When your work hits a wall, it’s natural to seek new inspiration. The less natural inclination? Kidnap foreign talent and force creativity out of them at gunpoint. But leave it to movie fanatic Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s former dictator (and questionable patron of the arts), to prove the exception to the rule. By luring South Korea’s greatest cinematic resource north using a chloroform-soaked towel, Kim ushered in North Korea’s golden age of film.

Long before his father’s death in 1994, Kim Jong Il played supervisor to the North Korean movie industry. As such, he made sure each production served double duty as both art form and propaganda-dispersion vehicle. Per his instructions, the nation’s cinematic output consisted of films illuminating themes such as North Korea’s fantastic military strength and what horrible people the Japanese are. It was the perfect job for a cinephile like Kim, whose personal movie collection reportedly features thousands of titles, including favorites Friday the 13th, Rambo, and anything starring Elizabeth Taylor or Sean Connery.

Despite Kim’s creative influence on the industry during the 1970s (when he served with the country’s Art and Culture Ministries) and the fact that he literally wrote the book on communist filmmaking (1973’s On the Art of the Cinema), North Korean movies continued to stink.

Frustrated, Kim sought help by forcing 11 Japanese “cultural consultants” into servitude during the late 1970s and early 1980s, only to have several die inconveniently on the job (some by their own hands). But coerced consulting can only get a film industry so far, and North Korea was still in search of its Orson Welles. Then, in 1978, respected South Korean director Shin Sang Ok suddenly found himself out of work after he angered his own country’s military dictator in a spat over censorship, and Kim Jong Il saw his chance to harness Shin’s artistry.

Kim promptly lured Shin’s ex-wife and close friend, actress Choi Eun Hee, to Hong Kong to “discuss a potential role.” Instead, she was kidnapped.

A distraught Shin searched for Choi, but found himself similarly ambushed by Kim’s minions. After some “convincing”—by way of some chloroform and a rag—he was whisked away to North Korea. Choi lived in one of Kim’s palaces, and Shin—having been captured after an attempted escape only months after arriving—lived for four years in a prison for political dissidents, where he subsisted on grass, rice, and communist propaganda.

In February 1983, Shin and Choi were finally reunited at a dinner party. With little fanfare, Kim commanded them to hug and “suggested” the couple remarry (which they did). Then, they were confronted with their new moviemaking duties—namely, to infuse some life into North Korean cinema and promote government ideals.

Government Work

For the next several years, Shin and Choi were given access to state-of-the-art equipment, but were saddled with constant supervision. Kim demanded their films lure viewers outside North Korea, but refused to allow the couple any flexibility to nurture such nuance. Instead, Kim encouraged them with an annual salary of millions. Shin later confessed to moments of complacency in his new lavish lifestyle, but he and Choi were less than enthusiastic about their new home, and ultimately, monetary compensation couldn’t overcome their hatred for communism.

apulgasari.jpgDespite Shin’s internal turmoil (or perhaps because of it), the director does have a few standouts from this phase in his career. Among them is Pulgasari, a Godzilla-esque film some suspect was meant as a slam to the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong Il’s father as well as a veiled depiction of Shin’s feelings about his egomaniacal taskmaster. Fortunately, Kim loved it, largely because he interpreted the flick as an outright critique of capitalism.

Even from beneath a pile of accolades and money, Shin and Choi couldn’t stop dreaming of escape. In fact, their “Dear Leader” was building them a mansion and a Hollywood-worthy movie set when the couple went to Vienna to negotiate film distribution rights in 1986. There, Shin and Choi eluded their bodyguards, fled to the American embassy, and pled for asylum. Discussions they’d secretly taped with their executive producer were used as proof that they hadn’t gone to North Korea for fame and fortune (as they’d been forced to claim during press conferences), and they were allowed to return home to South Korea. Shin passed away in 2006, at the age of 79.

Kim Jong Il had to go back to relying on homegrown talent to crank out roughly 60 movies a year, but he never achieved his dream of winning an international audience. Regardless, in the years before he died, a sign outside the country’s Ministry of Culture read, “Make More Cartoons”—proof that Kim Jong Il continued to impart his wisdom, and influence, on North Korean filmmakers.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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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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