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World War I Centennial: Austria-Hungary Punts the Balkan Issue

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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 37th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

September 27, 1912: Austria-Hungary Punts the Balkan Issue

As September 1912 drew to an end, the Balkan Peninsula was hurtling towards war. Law and order had collapsed in the Ottoman Empire, where the Albanian rebellion triggered waves of ethnic violence pitting Christian Slavs against Muslim Albanians and Turks. This provided a pretext for intervention by the Balkan League, a conspiracy formed by the Ottoman Empire’s neighbors to carve up Turkish territory in Europe.

At this point, many observers expected the nearest European Great Power, Austria-Hungary, to intervene to keep the peace – militarily, if need be. Austria-Hungary had plenty of reasons to oppose the Balkan League’s plans to divide up the Ottoman Empire’s European territories. Most important, such a move would increase the size and power of Serbia, which served as a magnet for the nationalist aspirations of Austria-Hungary’s millions of Slavs. After liberating Slavic populations under Turkish rule, the next logical goal for the Serbs would be to unite with their kinsmen in Montenegro and free the Slavs of Austria-Hungary.

Austria-Hungary still had geography on its side, in the form of a narrow strip of Turkish territory separating Serbia from Montenegro, called the Sanjak of Novibazar. As long as the Sanjak remained under Turkish – or Austro-Hungarian – occupation, Serbia and Montenegro wouldn’t be able to join forces, so this was a top priority for Austro-Hungarian foreign policy. In fact, as recently as 1908 the other European Great Powers granted Austria-Hungary the right to station troops in the Sanjak (even though it was part of Turkish territory) in order to keep Serbia and Montenegro apart – but the previous Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, Alois Graf Lexa von Aehrenthal, had foolishly given up that right as part of Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Now that war was looming in the Balkans, many officials in the Austro-Hungarian government argued the Austria-Hungary should send troops back into the Sanjak, or even go to war with Serbia and Montenegro if they tried to invade the Sanjak themselves.

But the new foreign minister in Vienna, the notoriously indecisive Count Leopold Berchtold, didn’t think Austria-Hungary should go to war over the Sanjak, or unilaterally violate Turkish sovereignty by sending in troops. Instead, on September 27, 1912, he told German diplomats that Austria-Hungary would avoid armed conflict in favor of diplomacy: with Germany’s help, he hoped to convince the other Great Powers to form a united front to discourage Serbia and Montenegro from invading the Sanjak, or at least prevent them from formally annexing the territory if they did invade.

The Status Quo

This actually wasn’t such a far-fetched idea: most of the Great Powers (occasionally including the Slavic states’ patron, Russia) had an interest in maintaining the status quo in the Balkans, and they often cooperated to enforce their decisions on smaller states. More importantly, most military experts believed that the much larger Ottoman Empire would prevail against the Balkan League in the impending war – so even if the Serbs and Montenegrins did occupy the Sanjak temporarily, it would be relatively easy to shoo them out as part of peace negotiations.

As it happened, events took a much different course than the experts predicted: beginning in October 1912 the Balkan League inflicted a stunning defeat on the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, and when it was over the Serbs and Montenegrins were entrenched in the Sanjak, which they would never give up without a fight. Although Austria-Hungary could probably beat them militarily, Berchtold had already promised the other Great Powers that Austria-Hungary wouldn’t go to war over this issue, effectively tying his own hands.

The result was a big increase in Serbian power, and a backlash in Vienna against Berchtold’s muddled attempts at moderation. Having suffered what they considered a major diplomatic defeat during the First Balkan War, the hawks in Vienna resolved not to let Serbia get away with anything else – even if it meant an even bigger war. In short, Berchtold’s attempt to avoid a regional war in the Balkans set the stage for a continental conflagration just a few years later.

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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]