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The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Kim Jong-nam

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Kim Jong-nam, the older half brother of Kim Jong-un, is dead. The quirky fan of Disneyland—and of just not being in North Korea generally—fell ill at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and died suddenly on Monday. Was it murder? Maybe.

According to media reports from South Korea, the elder Kim—who is perhaps best known for being busted by customs officials when trying to enter Japan with a false passport in 2001, in an attempt visit to Tokyo Disneyland—was attacked by two females who killed him using either poisoned needles or a poisoned cloth. Malaysian police official Fadzil Ahmat reported that "the deceased felt like someone grabbed or held his face from behind. He felt dizzy, so he asked for help." He died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea, certainly didn’t like his brother very much, and has taken a shot at him before—so it wouldn't be surprising if the North Korean government had something to do with his death. If they are responsible, it certainly took a bit of effort. While his ill-fated trip to Disneyland eventually saw him exiled to Macau by his father, the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-nam was not an easy target. He loved to travel, and in recent years had been spotted everywhere from Singapore to Jakarta to Paris (where his son, Kim Han-sol, lives). For a guy supposedly in hiding, he seemed to take special joy in running up tabs at expensive restaurants.

Historically, airports have been bad news for Kim Jong-nam. In 2001, he was nabbed by Japanese authorities at Tokyo's Narita International Airport for trying to slip into the country using a passport from the Dominican Republic—a crime made all the more bizarre because, in those days, he was the heir apparent to Kim Jong-il, the Shining Star of Paektu Mountain. He probably could have gotten VIP treatment with a North Korean passport, if only because they are so rare and almost never used more than once. On this trip, however, he preferred to travel as a Dominican named Pang Xiong (literally, “Fat Bear” in Mandarin).

This was the trip in which the globetrotter was attempting to visit Disneyland Tokyo. This did not go over well back home: After Kim was deported to China, Kim Jong-un became heir to the throne. (There is a middle brother, Kim Jong-chul, but he was passed over for being too feminine for his father’s taste.) Regardless, the official president of North Korea is Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, making North Korea the world’s only necrocracy.

Because the Kim family isn’t exactly known for their lavish press conferences, much of Kim Jong-nam’s life had to be pieced together from photographs and unofficial reports. He didn’t attend his father’s funeral, and certainly wasn’t there for his brother’s “inauguration.” He was also reportedly opposed to hereditary rule, writing, allegedly, “As a matter of common sense, a transfer to the third generation is unacceptable.” He also threw shade at his brother, which certainly didn't help his position in the actuary tables. “The power elite that have ruled the country will continue to be in control,” he wrote. “I have my doubts about whether a person with only two years of grooming as a leader can govern.”

Being any other Kim but the top one is a hard business. Kim Jong-nam’s mother was exiled to Moscow, where she died alone. His uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was declared by the North Korean state to be a “despicable human scum” who was “worse than a dog” and who “perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.” He was later executed. (Though rumor has it that he was fed alive to 120 starving dogs, experts say he was more likely killed by a firing squad.)

Kim Jong-nam leaves behind a legacy of booze, women, and mouse ears. Considering his brother’s affinity for building nuclear weapons and lobbing long-range missiles at any country that isn’t North Korea, an ardent desire to ride the world famous Jungle Cruise isn’t the worst way to be remembered.

Portions of this article were published previously in 2013 and 2014.

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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