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10 Things You Might Not Know About North Korea

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Yesterday, the world was set on edge when North Korea tested a multi-kiloton nuclear bomb at a facility in P'unggye. It’s always interesting to know who’s on the other side of the Bomb, so here are ten things you might not know about North Korea.

1. It has a large military.

While a real world occurrence of 2012’s Red Dawn is impossible even by the admittedly low standards of 80s action film remakes, North Korea does have a really, really large military. The country has universal conscription in accordance with its constitution, which states: "Defending the fatherland is the supreme duty and honor of citizens. Citizens shall defend the fatherland and serve in the armed forces as prescribed by law." It is estimated that 1.1 million males are on active duty military status, making it the fourth-largest army in the world. Its reserve force of 8 million is the world’s largest.

2. You’re not allowed to cross its borders with a “killing device.”

Sophie Schmidt recently toured North Korea with her father and provided a fascinating written record of her experience. Among items which must be declared at customs include “killing device,” “exciter,” “hand phone,” and “publishings of all kinds.”

3. On average, North Koreans are 1 to 3 inches shorter than South Koreans.

Professor Daniel Schwekendiek from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul studied refugees from North Korea. Compared with those who live in South Korea, there is a difference in height of 1 to 3 inches. He observed that the disparity is most striking among children. "The height gap is approximately 4 cm (1.6 in) among pre-school boys and 3 cm (1.2 in) among pre-school girls, and again the South Koreans would be taller." Martin Bloem, head of nutrition at the World Food Programme, attributed the difference to the poor diet of North Koreans. He says, "Food and what happens in the first two years of life is actually critical for people's height later.”

4. Kim Jong-Il was the “Shining Star of Paektu Mountain.”

Everyone knows that Kim Jong-Il was called “Dear Leader” by the state press. But North Korean journalists could get a little more creative than that. Among other titles, the North Korean leader was called: “Brilliant Leader,” “Guiding Sun Ray,” “Ever-Victorious, Iron-Willed Commander,” and “Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have.”

5. Its sitting president is dead.

The incumbent president of North Korea is Kim Il-Sung. He assumed the office of the Eternal Presidency on July 8, 1994, and he has steadfastly held onto power, even though he’s been dead for 18 years. This makes North Korea the world’s only necrocracy.

6. There’s no escaping the idols of the ruling family.

If you’re an educated North Korean, there’s a good chance you went to Kim Il-Sung University. (You might even have read the Complete Collection of Kim Il Sung's Works, a riveting hundred volume work.) Sports fan? See you at Kim Il-Sung Stadium. We can get there by crossing Kim Il-Sung Bridge. And just to shake things up, let’s meet at the Immortal Statue of Kim Il-Sung (which is one of 34,000 statues of Kim Il-Sung in North Korea, not including the Towers of Eternal Life in each town). But that’s nothing next to his son, who can reportedly control the weather based on his moods.

7. I can’t even think of something to say here.

In 2009, satellite imagery revealed a lot about the high life of the Kims, and the terrifying subjugation of the North Korean people. Photographs revealed details of Hwasong Concentration Camp, generally known as Camp 16, one of the country’s most notorious prisons. According to the Wall Street Journal, it is roughly 300 square miles. There are 20,000 political prisoners at Camp 16, and it is located near a facility for testing nuclear bombs (because the hell of lifelong forced labor isn’t enough). Things you might expect to find in a North Korean prison include torture, executions both public and secret, starvation, disease, and infanticide (in the cases where expecting mothers were incarcerated).

8. The Kim family is doing okay, thanks for asking.

When he wasn’t orchestrating genocide, Kim Jong-Il was building mansions. He had 32 residences ranging from ornate beach houses to frightful massive mountaintop palaces. Presumably, they weren’t returned to the people when he died. After all, the late dictator remains in office as Eternal General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea. And what better way to recover from a long day’s work than a few rides down a garish poolside water slide? For what it’s worth, when Kim Jong-Il came to power, the price tag of ceremonies honoring him and his father came to $2.68 billion.

9. Kim Jong-un is ramping up the propaganda machine.

The Supreme Leader of North Korea is Kim Jong-un, who also holds the positions of Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army, First Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea—look, I’ll save you some time here. He holds all the titles. The state press has called him the “Great Successor.” He’s the youngest head of state in the world, holds a physics degree, and loves long-range rockets and nuclear weapons. Upon his father’s death, Kim Jong-un was declared the "party, military, and country’s supreme leader who inherits great comrade Kim Jong-il’s ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage." Great.

10. It has its very own Internet.

Kwangmyong is North Korea’s intranet, available for the browsing of Kim fan pages by the North Korean people. It is not connected to the Internet, because—well if you made it this far in the list I don’t really need to explain why. Kwangmyong has email, news, an electronic library, and scrubbed science material from the world media. The official Internet presence of North Korea wants you to know that “The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a genuine workers' state in which all the people are completely liberated from exploitation and oppression. The workers, peasants, soldiers and intellectuals are the true masters of their destiny and are in a unique position to defend their interests.”

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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