Original image
Getty Images

World War I Centennial: France Tells Russia England Will Fight Germany

Original image
Getty Images

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 31st installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

August 17, 1912: France Tells Russia England Will Fight Germany

After the Russian and French general staffs met in Paris in July 1912, French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré (above, at right) followed up with a trip of his own to St. Petersburg, where he met Tsar Nicholas II and Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov. Poincaré’s overriding goal during his visit to St. Petersburg was to further secure the Franco-Russian Alliance, for domestic as well as foreign policy reasons: by reassuring the Russian government of France’s commitment to their alliance, he also reassured a jittery French public of Russia’s commitment to help defend France against Germany.

Poincaré’s meetings with Sazonov (left) and the Tsar covered a wide range of areas where France and Russia were cooperating, including French investments in strategic railroads that would help speed up Russian mobilization in the event of war with Germany. They also discussed the increasingly violent situation in the Balkans, where the Muslim Ottoman Turks were brutally crushing unrest among Christian Slavs; here Poincaré advised the Russians not to go rushing in just yet, knowing direct Russian intervention could lead it into conflict with Austria-Hungary as well as the Ottoman Empire. France would always stand by its Russian ally in the event of a war with Germany, Poincaré assured the Russians, but the terms of the Franco-Russian Alliance didn’t extend to a war between Russia and Austria-Hungary, which posed no direct threat to France.

But perhaps the most important communication occurred on August 17, 1912, when Poincaré informed Sazonov of the recently agreed Anglo-French Naval Convention, which would, despite some ambiguous wording, probably oblige the British to take France’s side in a war with Germany. Sazonov recounted that “the French Prime Minister confided to me that, although no written agreement existed between France and England,” there was nevertheless “a verbal agreement by virtue of which England stated her readiness, in the event of an attack on the part of Germany, to give assistance to France with both her naval and her military forces.”

This momentous disclosure could complicate European diplomacy considerably; it’s no surprise Sazonov also recalled that “M. Poincaré earnestly requested me to maintain the utmost secrecy about this information, and not to give even the English any reason to suspect it had been communicated to us.”

Big News for Russia

To see why Poincaré’s disclosure about the Anglo-French Naval Convention was so important, you just have to look at the broader context of the European alliance system at that time. Poincaré understood that in the event of war between Russia and Austria-Hungary, Germany would likely declare war on Russia too, in support of its only real ally – in which case France would become involved under the terms of the Franco-Russian Alliance. In this context, his disclosure about the Anglo-French Naval Convention could only embolden the Russians in their dealings with Austria-Hungary and its German ally, as the Russian ministers – calculating that the Germans would want to avoid getting embroiled in a war with Russia, France, and England all at once – felt free to act more aggressively in pursuing Russian interests.

And the Russians had plenty of long-term demands in the Balkans and the Middle East. Above all Tsar Nicholas II (left) was curious to know whether France would support Russia’s aspirations to eventually control Constantinople, as he asked Poincaré point blank on August 17, 1912. Poincaré responded coyly that he couldn’t give such a sweeping assurance, being a mere premier; only the French President could make such a bold foreign policy statement (implying he intended to run for the presidency, which he did, winning election on January 17, 1913).

Of course, the Russians didn’t presently have the means to mount an amphibious landing in Constantinople, meaning the whole discussion was pretty much moot – at least for the time being. In the long term, given the unsettled situation in the Balkans (which held out the possibility of Great Power intervention to protect Christian minorities), the goal of seizing control of the straits wasn’t that far-fetched, especially once Russia’s ambitious new naval program was complete.

At this point Russia’s aggressive foreign policy might well lead to a broader conflict, especially if Germany became desperate to break through the French, Russian, and British “encirclement.” But Poincaré wasn’t wholly opposed to the idea of a general European war, as long as France had Russia and Britain at its side, creating a balance of forces which favored the French. Many observers assumed that war with Germany was inevitable, and if it could be made to occur on terms favorable to the French, all the better.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]