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World War I Centennial: The Balkans Spin Out of Control

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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 33rd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

August 23-26, 1912: The Balkans Spin Out of Control

By the end of August 1912 the situation in the Ottoman Empire was catastrophic, as ethnic conflict in the Balkans spiraled out of control, giving the Balkan League – a loose alliance of Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece – the pretext it needed for invading and grabbing the empire’s remaining European territories.

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As always in the Balkans, things were complicated. Religious and sectarian divides were layered on top of ethnic animosities dating back to the great population movements of the medieval period.

While it would be impossible to catalogue all the divisions, a few examples give some idea of the Balkans’ incredible – and frequently violent – diversity.

First of all, there was the longstanding tension between Slavs (including Bulgarians, Serbs and Montenegrins) and Turks, stemming from the history of Turkish rule and religious animosity between Muslim Turks and Christian Slavs. In the western Balkans, the Albanians were descended from native tribes who converted to Islam and intermarried (to some extent) with their Turkish rulers in the medieval period. Some Albanian tribes served as local enforcers for Turkish rule, and the Albanians were often reviled as “Turks” by their Slavic neighbors (meanwhile a minority of Albanians were Catholics, pitting them not only against the Muslim Turks, but Orthodox Christian Slavs as well).

The Balkans’ Slavic populations also had complicated lineages. The inhabitants of Montenegro (the “Black Mountain,” named for its dominant geographic feature) were basically Serbs, although they maintained a distinct identity following the conquest of Serbia by the Ottomans in the 14th century. To the east, Slavs in the Ottoman provinces of Macedonia and Thrace were often called “Bulgarians” because they spoke Bulgarian – but they also identified themselves as “Greeks” because they shared the Eastern Orthodox faith, and some just called themselves “Christians” to distinguish themselves from the Muslim Turks.

Submerged within the mixed population of Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks there was also a gradually emerging ethnic identity, the Macedonians – a Slavic, Christian people living in the central Balkan highlands, who distinguished themselves from ethnically similar peoples living in the coastal lowlands around them. For a little added confusion, Greeks living in the Ottoman Balkan territories and Asia Minor called themselves “Romanoi,” or “Romans,” in reference to their Byzantine heritage; the Romanians, despite interbreeding with Slavs, considered themselves Latinate because of their language; and Bosnians, Pomaks, and Gorani are all Slavic groups who converted to Islam, which often set them against their (otherwise very similar) Christian neighbors.

In 1912 this simmering cauldron of ethnic and religious animosities boiled over yet again. In May the Albanians rebelled against the Turks, provoking their Slavic neighbors to rise up as well. In early August the Albanian rebels seized Skopje, the capital of Turkish Kosovo, while the Turks massacred Bulgarians at Kochana, Macedonia, and on August 14, 1912, allegedly committed atrocities against Montenegrins in the town of Berane (now in eastern Montenegro, then Ottoman territory). Unsurprisingly these massacres of Christians by Turkish Muslims inflamed public opinion in the neighboring Slavic kingdoms. Bulgarian newspapers called on the Bulgarian government to declare war on the Ottoman Empire to protect their countrymen, and Montenegro moved troops to the Turkish frontier, where they soon clashed with local Albanian tribesmen and Turkish troops.

On August 13, Austrian foreign minister Count Berchtold proposed that Europe’s Great Powers force the Ottoman government to implement reforms granting ethnic minorities, including the Slavs, more autonomy – maybe even self-rule within the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the month the Turks, seeing the Slavic Christians and European powers lining up against them, were ready to make terms with the Albanian rebels, who at least didn’t want to separate from the empire (yet). The rebels had some significant demands, as recorded by Aubrey Herbert, a British diplomat who braved the Balkan chaos and left behind valuable eyewitness reports: along with schools and officials who spoke Albanian, the Albanians wanted “guns for all” – an all-too-Balkan request. Swallowing their pride, on August 23, 1912 the Turks offered amnesty to Albanian rebels, suggesting that most of these demands would probably be met.

But the wider situation had already slipped beyond the control of the Ottoman government. On August 23, 1912, a Serbian Christian and local Ottoman government official was murdered in Sjenica by an angry crowd of Muslim Albanians, inflamed by reports that Albanians were being attacked by Montenegrin troops at the town of Mojkovac, in what is now northern Montenegro, as well as Berane (in response to alleged Turkish atrocities earlier in the month). Before long, the Balkan rumor mill – and Serbian-Montenegrin propaganda – had inflated the murder at Sjenica into the “massacre” of a “thousand” Serbs by Turkish soldiers. On August 26, Herbert reported skirmishes along the frontier between Montenegro and the Ottoman Empire, followed by a rash of murders, targeting various ethnicities, in the city of Pe? in northwest Kosovo.

Between Turkish atrocities at Berane, the “massacre” at Sjenica, and growing anarchy within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, Serbia and Montenegro now had all the pretexts they needed to declare war on the hated Turks; the First Balkan War was a little over a month away.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.