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10 Things to Know When Sneaking into North Korea

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banner image: getty images

In the introduction to North Korea Undercover, author John Sweeney describes the country as “Kafka written in an alphabet no one can read.” Sweeney came to this conclusion after sneaking into the country under the guise of a university professor interested in taking the grand tour. This book, a result of that visit, has the wit of a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy entry and the sober reporting of a BBC journalist, which Sweeney was at the time of his visit. Should you plan to follow his example and slip across North Korea’s borders, here are 10 things you need to know.

1. You’re going to a very bad place.

Trying to understand North Korea, writes Sweeney, is like “figuring out a detective story where you stumble across a corpse in the library, a smoking gun beside it, and the corpse gets up and says that’s no gun and it isn’t smoking and this isn’t a library.” The reality-deprived pronouncements from its state media come across as cartoonish, but the regime is as tyrannical as any to ever hold power. The North Korean government is cavalier in its attitude toward global thermonuclear war. Its gulags, according to defectors, are like tiny outposts of hell. While the Kim family lives in a permanent state of lavish decadence, one-quarter of North Korean children are starving and malnourished. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans starved to death in the 1990s. (Some of the regime’s evils and oddities can be found at mental_floss here, here, here, here, and here.)

2. International tensions keep North Korea alive.

Why hasn’t Kim Jong-un (or his late father) been forced to stand before the International Criminal Court? Why hasn’t some general in the North Korean army inflicted the tyrant with a fatal dose of cranial lead poisoning? Simply put, the Kim family still holds power because the international community allows it to do so. Moscow likes North Korea just as it is: benign to Russia and a frustration to the west. If North Korea falls, South Korea inherits an expensive and destabilizing human rights disaster. Korean reunification would mean that China has to then share a border with a staunch American ally. (South Korea presently hosts a heavily armed and fortified U.S. military presence in its borders.) Japan, meanwhile, would have to compete against a rejuvenated Korea. The United States would have to scramble madly to account for North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities—a process it previously went through when the Soviet Union fell, in Iraq (though unsuccessfully, obviously), and covertly in Pakistan.

3. If you’re a journalist, you’re going to need a cover.

When Christopher Hitchens infiltrated North Korea, he could not do so as a journalist. He took the guise of a university lecturer. John Sweeney used the same disguise. The two men did not list “writer” on the occupation block of the visa application because North Korea generally does not permit visits from journalists (for obvious reasons). The exception is the Associated Press, which has a Pyongyang bureau. As Sweeney writes, however, the AP “has been accused of running ‘chirpy, upbeat stories rather than real news.’” Either way, once you get into the country, don’t expect to start snapping photographs with abandon. You will visit places only under tightly controlled conditions, and the minders assigned to you will carefully monitor what you can and cannot photograph. As Sweeney explains, there is also a bit of extortion at work: The North Korean government subtly makes it known that one’s assigned minder will pay the price for a foreign visitor who later writes harshly of Dear Leader.

4. While there, you can tweet, post selfies, and other such Internet horrors.

If there is any hope, it is that the information age is breaking the pneumatic seal of the Kim regime. Inside North Korea, those along the border can pick up cell phone signals from South Korea. A student traveling with Sweeney posted an update to Twitter from within North Korea’s borders. “If we could do that,” writes Sweeney, “so could a North Korean with a smuggled Chinese-manufactured phone.” Meanwhile, those living in the northernmost areas in North Korea get signals from China. The sneakernet is also working against the regime, with smugglers bringing thumb drives into North Korea. Kim Jong-Un and his lackeys can broadcast whatever propaganda they like, but such lies are obliterated by photos and video evidence of a better life pretty much everywhere else in the world.

5. There is a North Korean nightlife.

Though they live under the boot heel of a totalitarian regime, the North Korean people aren’t simply drones waiting to die. North Korea Undercover contains several anecdotes that reveal that the people's spirit is not broken. “People are happy, joking, witty, and full of fun,” Sweeney writes. One night he and his fellow travelers visited a karaoke bar “no less dire than any other karaoke bar in the world.” He sang the theme to Titanic. The ship sank April 15, 1912, which happens also to be the birthday of Kim Il-Sung. (“Twin disasters that day, some say.”)

6. For foreigners, North Korea isn’t a particularly dangerous place to visit.

Though life can be nightmarish for North Korean peasants, for foreign visitors it isn’t so bad. According to one Beijing-based travel agent who operates North Korean tours, “We have run thousands of tours over 20 years and we have never had anyone detained, questioned, molested, ejected, or arrested.” Sweeney, who has reported from a dozen dictatorships, including Czechoslovakia, Gaddafi-era Libya, Saddam-era Iraq, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Milosevic-era Serbia, writes that North Korea “was the tyranny in which I felt the least sense of personal threat. You can get mugged in Cuba.”

7. While there, be sure to check out the “zombie tour.”

North Korea is in possession of a seemingly endless number of concrete buildings, all in drab gray. Frequently painted on the concrete are slogans in large red letters, with such motivational messages as “The Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, will always be with us.” This is useful for a country beset with power outages, as concrete signs never flicker. (This is described in Under the Same Sky as well, previously featured here.) Also not flickering, apparently, is the luminous rule of Kim Il-Sung. Because the long-dead elder Kim is the constitutional, eternal ruler of North Korea, the country is notable for being the world’s only necrocracy. All the same, his corpse can be viewed at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum he shares with Kim Jong-Il. As Sweeney’s North Korean minder explained of the mausoleum, “The Korean people believe that our President Kim Il Sung is always with us, so when we go to the Mausoleum we don’t think we are going to a mausoleum, we are going to meet him.” Sweeney calls this the “zombie tour.”

8. Ever feel lonely, or like the government doesn’t listen to you? In North Korea, that’s not a problem.

It occurred to Sweeney that his room might be bugged, and in North Korea Undercover he recounts an anecdote from Michael Breen, biographer of Kim Jong-Il. Two Danish engineers were working on a project in North Korea, and one night in their hotel room, began complaining about how bored they were, one of them wishing he had brought a deck of cards: “The next day at work, their minder presented them with a pack of cards. The creepy bit is that they had been talking in Danish.”

9. If you’re lucky, you will receive “on-the-spot guidance.”

North Korean tyrants have a penchant for what is called “on-the-spot guidance,” which is broadcast on North Korean television, and even depicted by large, bronze statues. On-the-spot guidance involves Kim Il-Sung and his heirs stopping ordinary people and dispensing advice on how better to live their lives. Like most propaganda from the North Korean government, the storylines of OTSG follow simplistic patterns with the Leader always cast as a god-hero. As noted by Bryan Myers, a famed scholar of the North Korean regime, “Both problem and solution are thus described in terms a child can grasp. Indeed, the Leader’s published remarks are always trite: ‘Rainbow trout is a good fish, tasty and nutritious.’”

10. You do not want to go “for a stay in the mountains.”

The Korean People’s Army Unit 10215 acts as the secret police of the North Korean government. (In Korean, they are called Bowibu.) They are “the power in the land,” writes Sweeney, employing 50,000 people who “spy on everyone worth spying on: the palace’s most loyal retainers, officials in the government and the Party, generals in the army, the dynasty’s trickier relatives, the police, ordinary people, and of course, foreigners.” Those unfortunate enough to cross the regime—or to be related to someone who’s crossed the regime—are likely to go away “for a stay in the mountains,” which is slang in North Korea for the gulag.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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