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9 Highlights from GQ's Kim Jong Il Expose

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By Keith Wagstaff

In 1982, a man calling himself Kenji Fujimoto flew to North Korea to teach young chefs in Pyongyang how to make sushi. He would eventually become Kim Jong Il's personal sushi chef and close confidante, staying by the Dear Leader's side for 11 years.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Adam Johnson interviewed Fujimoto in Saku, Japan, for a story in this month's GQ. In it, Fujimoto confirms that Kim Jong Il was as eccentric, unpredictable, and dangerous as the world thought he was.

If you have time to spare, it's definitely worth delving into this fascinating 8,040-word article. In the meantime, here are some of the more interesting revelations:

1. Fujimoto would fly to Beijing to buy Big Macs for Kim Jong Il
Seeing as high-quality ingredients were scarce in North Korea, Kim Jong Il would have Fujimoto fly all over the world to bring him foreign delicacies, including Iran for caviar, France for wine and cognac, Denmark for beer and ham, and Beijing for an American specialty: The Big Mac. Mostly, however, he would fly to Japan for fish.

2. Nobody could call Kim Jong Il by his name
Fujimoto had no idea who Kim Jong Il was until he saw his picture on the front page of a newspaper:

The next day, Fujimoto was talking to the mamasan of his hotel. She was holding a newspaper, the official Rodong Sinmun, and on the front page was a photo of the man in the tracksuit. Fujimoto told her this was the man he'd just served dinner.

"She started trembling," Fujimoto said of the moment he realized the man's true identity. "Then I started trembling." [GQ]

The reason Fujimoto didn't know who he was serving? Nobody called Kim Jong Il by his name. The government officials who associated with him called him "Jang-gun-nim," meaning "honored general," or risked disappearing. Fujimoto, who didn't speak Korean, would translate that into Shogun-sama, or "super shogun."

3. Kim Jong Il loved Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and Iron Chef
Kim Jong Il apparently loved watching California's 38th governor in action, watching and discussing Arnold Schwarzenegger movies with Fujimoto while they both drank Bordeaux. The Dear Leader was also a big Iron Chef fan, stockpiling VHS tapes of episodes and asking Fujimoto about ingredients like foie gras, truffles, and Kobe beef.

4. Fujimoto escaped North Korea because Kim Jong Il wanted to try uni
Kim Jong Il became suspicious of Fujimoto after he had been detained by Japanese officials while in Tokyo on a fish run. Despite this fact, Fujimoto was able to convince the North Korean dictator to let him return to Japan to bring back something he had never tried before:

In March 2001, Fujimoto casually mentioned to Kim Jong-il that he had a new Iron Chef video, an episode Kim had never seen. When they watched it together, Kim discovered the episode's "mystery ingredient" was one he'd never tasted before: sea-urchin roe, or uni. When Kim asked about uni, Fujimoto described it as the most exquisite delicacy in the world, one whose creamy texture was both oceany and sweet. It could only come from Rishiri Island, off Hokkaido, and only an experienced sushi chef could discriminate good uni from bad. [GQ]

While at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo to buy uni, Fujimoto stopped to eat a bowl of ramen, then ditched his North Korean minders in the crowd and escaped into the city.

5. Kim Jong Il kept young North Korean girls in his "Joy Division"
Kim Jong Il's "Joy Division" brigade consisted of North Korean girls taken from their homes before the age of 16 to provide entertainment, give massages, and perform sexual acts. Once "recruited," they were trained how to sing and dance and sent abroad to learn how to give massages. Depending on Kim Jong Il's mood, they could be ordered at any moment to "sing sentimental songs, disco dance, strip naked, or hold spontaneous boxing matches."

6. Kim Jong Il ate only perfectly shaped rice
Fujimoto described to GQ's Johnson the institute Kim Jong Il founded to prolong his longevity, which included inspecting his rice:

Its staff of 200 approved every element of Kim's diet. Each grain of Kim's rice was hand-inspected for chips and cracks — only perfectly shaped rice, grown in North Korea, was approved. According to Fujimoto, the rice had to be cooked over wood harvested from Mount Paektu, the sacred mountain where, North Korean propaganda claimed, Kim was born under a double rainbow and a newly born star. [GQ]

7. Kim Jong Il had a motorized boogie board
Kim Jong Il, who apparently wanted the fun of moving through the water without the exercise, had a motorized boogie board he would ride in his underground Olympic-sized swimming pool decorated with gold tiles in his image.

8. Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un liked to drink … a lot
Both father and son would challenge people to drinking contests. Parties, which could go on for as long as four days, would get so wild that they would sometimes lead to "head shaving, drunken pranks, gunplay." Kim Jong Il had a 10,000-bottle wine cellar and reportedly had a cognac habit that cost him $700,000 a year.

9. Kim Jong Il's funeral procession might have been inspired by In the Line of Fire
Once while watching the 1993 film In the Line of Fire, one of the 30,000 DVDs in his library, Kim Jong Il told his staff to watch as Clint Eastwood's character and seven of his Secret Service agents walked alongside the president's limo with their hands on the chassis:

"This is the best scene in the movie!" he announced. He turned to his secretary and pointed at him. "This is how you protect me," he said. Then he shouted at his security team, "You have to protect me as the Secret Police in the movie do!" [GQ]

Fujimoto noticed a similar formation in 2011 — when watching Kim Jong Un and seven others walking alongside a limo in Kim Jong Il's funeral procession.

Read the entire article at GQ.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]