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5 Americans Who Defected to North Korea

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There is an early scene in Austin Powers wherein our hero is thawed from cryogenic freeze and wakes to scientists and men in uniform. He first entered his sleep at the height of the Cold War, and is alarmed now to see a Russian officer nearby.

"Austin, the Cold War is over!" he is assured, to which Austin responds, "Finally those capitalist pigs will pay for their crimes, eh comrades?" (Sheepishly, his superior says, "Austin... we won.") In the 1960s, it was not clear that America would emerge triumphant, and Austin's mistaken assumption is understandable. For whatever reason, that scene came to mind while I was researching this list of Americans who defected to North Korea. Some of them were sold on the Communist lifestyle, some were looking for an escape from Western problems, and some were simply misled. Here are five Americans who expected the capitalist pigs to pay for their crimes, and defected to North Korea.

1. Joseph White

In 1982, an Army infantryman stationed in South Korea shot the lock of the demilitarized zone gate and slipped into the North. Joseph T. White was quickly put before cameras to denounce the "corruptness" and "hedonism" of the United States, and, if correspondence is to be believed, soon landed a job in North Korea as a schoolteacher, and was very happy there. Two years later, he drowned while fishing, and his body mysteriously disappeared.

2. Charles Robert Jenkins

On January 4, 1965, Charles Jenkins traded LBJ for Kim Il-Sung (the latter of whom, it should be noted, remains the Eternal President of the world's only necrocracy). Jenkins, it seems, was pretty worried about being transferred to the hell that was Vietnam, choosing instead the hell that is North Korea. Upon crossing the DMZ and surrendering to North Korean forces, he had hoped for a quick transfer to the Soviet Union. Thirty-nine years later, he finally left North Korea for Japan. He petitioned for a pardon by the United States, but was declined. (This was his second such rejection by a foreign power. In 1966, he slipped into the Soviet embassy and requested asylum. The Soviets would have none of that.) Unsurprisingly, Jenkins did not enjoy his time in North Korea, noting his quarantine in a crowded one-room shanty that lacked running water, the routine beatings, and the requirement to memorize the writings of Kim Il-Sung.

3. Larry Abshier

Larry Abshier crossed the border in 1962, and was cast as an Evil American in propaganda films, alongside such fellow defectors as Charles Jenkins. He became, by most accounts, a celebrity in North Korea for his body of work. Like Jenkins and the other defectors, he was forced to memorize vast swaths of Kim Il-Sung's prose. A fellow American expatriate named James Joseph Dresnok also bullied him relentlessly. (Jenkins described Abshier as "simple" and "easy to take advantage of," so much so that Abshier was nicknamed Lenny, after the character in Of Mice and Men.) Abshier married a couple of times; the North Korean government provided the women. He died in 1983, and was given a hero's burial. But not even on a headstone could the North Korean government pass on the opportunity to test the mutability of the past. Abshier's birthday is incorrect on the marker, and his birthplace is marked as "Pyongyang."

4. James Joseph Dresnok

One year before Larry Abshier arrived, James Dresnok was the new kid on the perfect incarnation of all that a block should be. He was a consummate actor—at least in his roles as Arthur, an Evil American in North Korean propaganda films. Why did he defect to the North? "I was fed up with my childhood, my marriage, my military life, everything," he said. The Army wasn't too upset about the defection. According to military records, he was "a chronic complainer" who was "lazy" and "defiant to authority." Since his defection, three government-provided women have married him, and he seems to enjoy his life in the kingdom of the Kims. In what is probably the weirdest fact in this piece, you can follow Dresnok on Twitter here.

5. Jerry Parrish

Jerry Parrish made a dash for unhappier lands on December 6, 1963. His reason is both vague and suggestive: He believed that if he returned home from his Army stint in South Korea, "his father-in-law would kill him." He spent much of the next two decades in North Korea as a teacher at the state's Reconnaissance Bureau Foreign Language College, a military school in Pyongyang. He died in 1998 of kidney problems.

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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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