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World War I Centennial: Montenegro Pledges War

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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 36th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

September 16, 1912: Montenegro Pledges War

In 1912, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece conspired to attack the Ottoman Empire and divide its European territories; the Balkan League, as their loose alliance was known, came together through a series of secret meetings between the ambassadors, foreign ministers, prime ministers and monarchs of all four countries continuing into the late summer of 1912.

Bulgaria and Serbia signed a military convention on June 19, 1912, where both countries promised to provide at least 200,000 soldiers to attack the Ottoman Empire, and on July 2, 1912, they agreed on a plan of attack. Meanwhile Bulgaria and Greece had signed a treaty of alliance on May 16, 1912. And on September 16, 1912, one of the last pieces fell into place when the general staffs of Bulgaria and Montenegro agreed on the terms of a military convention.

Although Bulgaria was the ringleader of the Balkan League, their military convention gave Montenegro – a small, warlike kingdom – the opening role in the attack on the Ottoman Empire, for reasons of prestige as well as practical purposes. In the warrior tradition (the Balkan monarchs liked to imagine themselves as the heirs of medieval chivalry), it was considered an honor for King Nikola of Montenegro (pictured) to lead the attack against the hated Turks. Of course, the Bulgarians realized this might also help deflect any international disapproval on to Montenegro; while sympathetic to the Slavic kingdoms, Europe’s Great Powers weren’t keen to upset the regional balance of power, and volatile Montenegro (only a kingdom since 1910) could catch the blame for starting the war.

The military convention pledged Montenegro to immediate action: Montenegrin forces would attack the Ottoman Empire no later than September 28, and Bulgaria promised to join the attack within a month. Of course, in a manner of speaking, war had already broken out, as the Albanian rebellion which began in May 1912 triggered wider ethnic unrest in the Ottoman Empire’s European territories, with militias representing the various Balkan nationalities battling each other in Macedonia and Albania. But intervention by the Balkan League would constitute a huge escalation.

The Turks couldn’t fail to notice the Balkan League’s preparations for war, and on September 24, 1912, they put their beleaguered European forces, fresh from trying to suppress the Albanian rebellion, on alert against yet another impending attack. In the end the Montenegrins, eager for glory, beat the deadline by two days: on September 26, 1912, Montenegrin forces skirmished with Turkish troops in the Sanjak of Novibazar, the narrow strip of Ottoman territory separating Montenegro from Serbia (even managing to attack before the military convention with Bulgaria was formally signed on September 27, 1912 – but by this time events were moving so quickly no one cared much about formalities).

The Russian Response

One crucial source of support for the Balkan adventure was lacking, however: as rumors of the impending attack spread, Russia, the main backer of the Slavic kingdoms among the European Great Powers, came under pressure from the other Great Powers to use its influence to avert war in the Balkans, by warning the members of the Balkan League that they would be on their own in a war with the Ottoman Empire. On September 16, 1912, foreign minister Sergei Sazonov also warned the Bulgarian General Stephen Paprikov that Russia would not back the Balkan League if the war with Turkey went badly. This was the first sign of growing Russian skepticism about the war, which could only grow when Bulgarian troops came close to seizing Constantinople – a prize Russia wanted for itself.

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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]