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10 Things You Might Not Know About North Korea

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Getty Images

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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]