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World War I Centennial: France Lays Out the Best-Case Scenario

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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 34th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

September 2, 1912: France Hopes Austria-Hungary Will Get Embroiled in Balkans

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By September 1912, Europe was divided into two alliance blocs, knit together by treaties both secret and public: on one side there was the alliance between France and Russia, which was augmented by the increasingly friendly entente cordiale between France and Britain (further cemented in the summer of 1912 by the Anglo-French Naval Convention, negotiated in July and finally signed on August 29). On the other side were Germany and its ailing sidekick Austria-Hungary, drawing ever closer together amid fears of diplomatic isolation and “encirclement” by the opposing alliance bloc. Italy, nominally allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Triple Alliance, was in fact basically undecided, keeping its options open in the event of war.

That event was more and more on the minds of European leaders, as the continent-wide arms race heated up following the Second Moroccan Crisis, and more trouble brewed in the Balkans. In every European capital, the general staff considered innumerable scenarios which might bring the alliance blocs into conflict, war-gaming different strategies in the hopes of entering the fight on terms most favorable to themselves – or at least avoiding disaster.

War Games

For example, Germany’s nightmare scenario was a simultaneous war with France, Russia, and Britain; even with Austria-Hungary at its side, this was a formidable combination that even the Kaiser’s most bellicose generals hoped to avoid. Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of Germany’s plan for a surprise flank attack on France through Belgium, simply assumed that Britain would stay out of a war between France and Germany, or arrive too late to help the French, allowing Germany to dispose of France before hurrying east to confront Russia. The optimal scenario for Germany was confrontation with France or Russia alone, with help from Austria-Hungary, Italy, and maybe even the Ottoman Empire.

For France, the worst-case scenario was to be left in the lurch by both Russia and Britain, forcing outnumbered French armies to face the Germans alone – a possibility French generals and diplomats tirelessly worked to avert by demonstrating their good faith to the skeptical Russians and wooing the skittish British. Meanwhile the best-case scenario for France (Germany’s nightmare) would see France supported by both Russia and Britain in a war with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The optimal conditions for France involved the Balkans as well. As the weakest of the Great Powers, Austria-Hungary’s participation in support of Germany was taken for granted: it had no other friends, and if Germany went down, Austria-Hungary was going down too. At the same time, it was generally recognized that Austria-Hungary might in fact be the cause of the war, given its entanglements in the Balkans, where neighboring Slavic states, especially Serbia, hoped to liberate their ethnic kinsmen under Hapsburg rule.

On September 2, 1912, the French general staff submitted a top-secret memorandum to the French premier, Raymond Poincaré, advising him that, if war had to come, the most advantageous scenario would be to have it begin with Austria-Hungary getting drawn into a conflict with one or more Balkan states – almost certainly including Serbia.

The French military planners reasoned that a Balkan war would tie down Austro-Hungarian armies, freeing Russia to concentrate its forces against Germany – the main threat to France. While this called for a fair amount of flexibility on the part of their Russian allies, the French knew this would probably be possible because they were privy to the latest Russian military plans, which called for concentrating the bulk of Russian forces closer to the center of European Russia and then sending them north or south, against Germany or Austria-Hungary, as needed.

In fact on July 13, 1912, the Russians had committed to attacking Germany by M+15, or the fifteenth day after mobilization – soon enough, the French hoped, to seriously disrupt the Schlieffen plan by forcing the Germans to withdraw troops from the attack on France. However, the French were too optimistic about the size of the forces Russia would send against Germany for a number of reasons.

For one thing, the Russians had no way of knowing for sure where the Austro-Hungarian armies would be deployed, due to limited intelligence-gathering capabilities. Second, if the war were triggered by Austro-Hungarian aggression in the Balkans, it only made sense for the thrust of the Russian response to fall against Austria-Hungary. Finally, even if they realized the Austro-Hungarian armies were concentrated elsewhere, the Russians still had their own fish to fry: while it was important to help France, their main long-term goal in the event of war with Germany and Austria-Hungary was conquering the northeastern Austrian province of Galicia, whose Ruthenian inhabitants were ethnically similar to Russians and Ukrainians; one secret internal memo actually described Galicia as part of the historic Russian heartland.

With this ambition firmly in mind, the Russians were less likely to oblige the French by concentrating the bulk of their forces against Germany, and more likely to remain focused on Austria-Hungary. Indeed, Austria-Hungary’s Balkan preoccupations would simply be an added invitation to invade Galicia in force, thus securing a major war aim at the beginning of the conflict. When war finally came in August 1914, the Russians did just that – sending the bulk of their forces against the Austrian front, while leaving enough troops to attack Germany in fulfillment of Russia’s treaty obligations to France. As a result, the Russian sally against east Prussia was sufficient to get the Germans’ attention – but not nearly strong enough to be decisive.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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