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World War I Centennial: The French Press Reports Fleet Movements

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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 35th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

September 10, 1912: The French Press Reports Fleet Movements

Although British and French generals held a series of informal military “conversations” beginning in 1906 after the First Moroccan Crisis, the Anglo-French Naval Convention negotiated after the Second Moroccan Crisis signaled the beginning of closer strategic cooperation between these traditional rivals, who were forced into each others’ arms by the rapid expansion of German power beginning in the second half of the 19th century.

The convention called for the British and French navies to coordinate their deployments to create a better defensive posture against the growing German High Seas Fleet, by moving British battleships from the Mediterranean Sea to the North Sea (the most likely arena for a big naval showdown in the event of war) while sending the French North Atlantic/English Channel fleet to patrol the Mediterranean. Essentially the British would transfer a large part of the burden of policing the Mediterranean to the French Navy, so that the Royal Navy could concentrate on keeping the Germans locked up in the North Sea. In return, the British promised to protect France’s channel ports against German naval bombardments or amphibious assaults in the event of a war between France and Germany – thus envisioning, without promising outright, British participation in the war as well.

Typically, the wording of the agreement left the cagy British plenty of leeway for avoiding war if they wanted, but old-school British ministers were still critical of anything even hinting of a promise to France, arguing that Britain should maintain its “splendid isolation” by avoiding foreign alliances altogether. Meanwhile British commercial interests criticized the move because it left the all-important Suez route, the lifeline to the British Empire in Asia, in foreign hands.

But ultimately strategic necessity trumped considerations of prestige for First Lord of the Navy Winston Churchill. Churchill’s advisor, the retired Admiral Jackie Fisher, laid out the situation in typically blunt fashion in a letter in June 1912: “The margin of power in the North Sea… requires this addition of the Mediterranean battleships … We cannot have everything or be strong everywhere. It is futile to be strong in the subsidiary theatre of war and not overwhelmingly supreme in the decisive theatre.”

Breaking News

For their part the French were also eager to implement the agreement, however ambiguous, in part because it would help secure France’s connection to Algeria, an important colony and source of reinforcements in the event of war. Thus on September 6, 1912, Vice-Admiral Charles Aubert, the chief of staff of the French Navy, issued orders for six old battleships stationed at the Atlantic port of Brest to redeploy to the port of Toulon on France’s Mediterranean coast. This small force wasn’t scheduled to depart until October 15, but on September 10 the French press caught wind of the planned redeployment when Le Temps leaked the news, hinting that it was just a preliminary move foreshadowing bigger redeployments to come.

The leak complicated things considerably for both British and French officials, as the British were suddenly forced to distance themselves from the agreement (and France) for domestic political reasons, and the French were left demanding more specific guarantees – which the British were now even more leery of giving. Although officials on both sides of the channel dismissed rumors of a formal agreement of any kind, French editors nonetheless surmised that the two governments must have struck some kind of deal for naval cooperation, since the French government would never leave the country’s north coast unprotected.

The German Response

The impact of the news was felt immediately – especially in Germany, the obvious target of any coordinated naval strategy, where fear of encirclement already reigned. Although German diplomats urged calm, the paranoid Kaiser Wilhelm II immediately jumped to dire conclusions, raging that Britain and France were preparing to break Germany as a world power (conveniently forgetting that his own actions during the Second Moroccan Crisis were at least partly to blame for their current anxieties). Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, a more level-headed individual, recognized that Germany may indeed have inadvertently pushed her enemies together, but still shared his Kaiser’s fear of encirclement, and also remained committed to a more assertive foreign policy as a way of distracting the German public from social and political tensions at home.

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
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]