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Kim Jong-Un's Less Responsible, Disney-Obsessed Older Brother

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North Korea seems very keen of late to let everyone know that it is prepared to start a global thermonuclear war. The United States is taking the threat seriously, deploying antiballistic missile defenses along the Pacific Coast, and South Korea is threatening a “strong response in initial combat without any political considerations.” There is some question as to whether or not North Korea is technically capable of actually waging such a war, and it seems that nobody has told Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, my new favorite joke:

Q. Why did the chicken cross the road?
A. To escape North Korea’s long-range missiles.

In 2001, it didn’t seem that Kim Jong-un’s fingerprints might one day adorn the red button. In those heady days, a different Kim was in line for the throne: Kim Jong-nam (above right), the eldest son of Kim Jong-il. Things went bad for Kim Jong-nam when he was detained at Narita International Airport in Tokyo. The charge: traveling with a fraudulent passport. Specifically, he attempted to pass himself off as a Dominican named Pang Xiong (which translates as “Fat Bear” in Chinese). Japanese authorities, who know a fake Dominican when they see one, deported the heir apparent of North Korea to China.

Kim Jong-nam and his immediate family were attempting to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

All of this was pretty embarrassing for Kim Jong-il, the Shining Star of Paektu Mountain, who thus canceled his own planned Chinese excursion. Kim Jong-nam quickly fell out of favor with his father, and was replaced by Kim Jong-un in the line of succession.

Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-un are half-brothers. The older brother was born to Song Hye-rim, mistress of Kim Jong-il. The younger of the two was born to Ko Young-hee, a Pyongyang opera star. There is a middle brother—Kim Jong-chol—but Dear Leader considered him too feminine to lead a manly state like North Korea.

Life in Exile

These days, Kim Jong-nam reportedly lives in China, and makes frequent, extended visits to Macao, the Vegas of Asia. He is believed to have a pretty hearty appetite for booze and women. Officially, he has not defected and still lives in North Korea, though he didn’t bother to attend Kim Jong-il’s funeral, nor did he attend Kim Jong-un’s coronation. There are reports that Kim Jong-nam is opposed to such hereditary transfers of power, and believes North Korea must reform or perish. “As a matter of common sense, a transfer to the third generation is unacceptable,” Kim Jong-nam allegedly wrote in an email. He’s not bullish on his half-brother, either. “The power elite that have ruled the country will continue to be in control ... I have my doubts about whether a person with only two years of grooming as a leader can govern.”

His ongoing relationship with North Korea is “a very sensitive question, I can not answer.”

As for his family life, we know that his mother was eventually exiled by Kim Jong-il, and that she died alone in Moscow. Kim Jong-nam’s son attends a private high school in Mostar, Bosnia. (The son’s name is Kim Han Sol.)

The upshot is that Kim Jong-nam was passed over for having, in his father’s view, “less than reliable” judgment. Which means that Kim Jong-un, who is threatening to bring about a nuclear apocalypse, was considered the dependable one. All this because Kim Jong-nam wanted to go to Disneyland. If only he’d showed a little more restraint, Disneyland would have come to him.

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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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May 23, 2017
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