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World War I Centennial: Even Bigger Battleships, Part III

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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 38th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

September 30, 1912: Kaiser Approves Bayern Design

With an international naval arms race stoking paranoia on all sides, in 1912 ship designers around the world brought their “A” game with designs for the biggest, most powerful ships the world had ever seen, including the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth, the USS Pennsylvania, and the Imperial German Navy’s Bayern. In Germany’s case, however, the new super-dreadnought would prove to be something of a last hurrah, as far as naval construction was concerned.

In the Reichstag the political will to build a huge German navy capable of confronting Britain’s Royal Navy was finally faltering. With one eye on public finances and the other on Britain’s First Lord Winston Churchill, who consistently warned that Britain would outpace German naval construction no matter how much, German parliamentarians soon lost their appetite for adding extra ships to the existing long-term construction plan. From 1912-1913, shipbuilding simply ceased to be a priority for German defense spending, which instead focused on meeting the growing land-based threat from France and Russia.

Typically, the name of the new battleship class, “Bayern” (Bavaria), reflected political wrangling by Navy Minister Admiral von Tirpitz to get Reichstag approval for the latest (and, it turned out, final) round of his ambitious naval construction program: Bayern was chosen as part of a strategy to court political support in the landlocked states of southern Germany, where interest in maritime issues was low and support for naval spending lukewarm at best. Not coincidentally, the other ships in the Bayern-class series – Baden, Sachsen, and Württemberg – also paid tribute to inland principalities.

Like other super-dreadnought battleships, the Bayern design was the result of a tug of war between competing demands for firepower, armor, and speed, which were finally hashed out in the summer of 1912 by Kaiser Wilhelm II (a boating enthusiast who often took a personal role in naval issues), Navy Minister Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, and other Admiralty officials. According to the design approved by the Kaiser on September 30, 1912, the Bayern class battleships would measure 591 feet long and displace 32,500 tons of water when fully loaded with armaments and fuel. They had a range of 5,000 nautical miles and a top speed of just 21 knots, reflecting the Admiralty’s assumption that they would confront the Royal Navy in the confined North Sea, and their preference for armor and firepower in this hypothetical short-range engagement. On that score the ships would carry eight 15-inch-diameter guns, each of which could throw a 1,653-pound shell over 13 miles (increasing to 14.7 miles when the guns mountings were redesigned). Cost considerations forced Tirpitz to compromise on some key issues, including delaying the installation of diesel engines for a year, but he insisted on the big guns.

The Competition

As noted in a previous post, by comparison the Queen Elizabeth-class battleship design approved by the British Admiralty in June 1912 measured about 646 feet long and displaced 27,500 tons. With a minimum crew complement of at least 950 sailors, the Queen Elizabeth had room for 3,500 tons of oil – around 25,650 barrels or 1.1 million gallons – a top speed of 24 knots or 27.6 miles per hour, and an effective range of 5,000 nautical miles (5,750 ordinary miles) at lower speeds, reflecting its core mission area around the British Isles. It carried eight 15-inch-diameter guns, each capable of throwing a 1,920-pound shell to a distance of almost 19 miles, for a total broadside weight of 7.8 tons.

The USS Pennsylvania, approved by Congress in August 1912, would measure 608 feet long, displace 31,400 tons of water, and carry a crew of at least 915. With room for 5,780 tons of oil (42,400 barrels or 1.8 million gallons) she had a maximum speed of 21 knots or 24 miles per hour and a maximum range of 8,000 nautical miles (9,200 ordinary miles) at lower speeds, reflecting the U.S. Navy’s preference for greater reach. She carried a dozen 14-inch-diameter guns, each of which could lob a 1,400-pound shell just over 13 miles, for a total broadside weight of 7.5 tons.

Construction and Service

The German Admiralty originally planned on building four ships in the Bayern class, but only the first two were completed, as the Great War forced Germany to concentrate production on land armaments and the new naval wonder weapon, Unterseebooten (U-boats or submarines). After the orders for the first two ships were placed in April 1913, the Bayern was laid down on January 22, 1914, launched on February 18, 1915, commissioned March 18, 1916, and finally accepted into the fleet in July 1916 – just missing the Battle of Jutland, May 31-June 1, 1916. In October 1917 the Bayern assisted the German conquest of Riga by helping drive the Russian navy from the Gulf of Riga, but then hit a mine, requiring major repairs.

Meanwhile the Baden was laid down on December 20, 1913, launched October 30, 1915, commissioned October 19, 1916, and finally accepted into the fleet in March 1917. It became the flagship of the German High Seas Fleet, but never took part in combat. In November 1918, both ships were turned over to the British as part of the armistice agreement. In June 1919 the Bayern was scuttled by its own crew to keep it out of British hands; the Baden sank after being used for target practice by British ships in 1921. Two other ships in the Bayern class, the Sachsen and the Württemberg, were laid down but never completed due to the war, and were eventually broken up as scrap metal in 1920-1921.

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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]