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World War I Centennial: First Balkan War Begins

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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 39th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

October 8, 1912: First Balkan War Begins

Serbian Generals/

On this date in 1912, Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire, opening the First Balkan War and moving Europe one step closer to the conflagration looming in 1914. Immediately after the declaration, Montenegrin armies crossed into the Sanjak of Novibazar – the narrow strip of Turkish territory separating Montenegro from Serbia – and advanced on Scutari (Shkodra), an important port city lying on the Adriatic Sea just south of Montenegro.

Montenegro only put about 45,000 troops in the field, but the little kingdom was merely the standard-bearer for the Balkan League, whose other members would join the war against the Ottoman Empire on October 18. Bulgaria would contribute over 350,000 troops, Serbia 230,000 troops, and Greece 125,000 troops to their combined military operation against the Turks. These forces, totaling around 750,000, faced Turkish forces totaling around 335,000 in Europe. The Turks could draw additional troops from their Asian possessions, but the Balkan League hoped to achieve victory before reinforcements arrived (the Greek navy would also help slow Turkish reinforcements by running interference against the Turkish navy in the Aegean Sea).

The Victorious Montenegrin Army in 1913/Getty Images

Although the Balkan League ultimately won a huge victory over the Turks in the First Balkan War, they soon fell to fighting each other over the spoils in the Second Balkan War in 1913. The main dispute was between Bulgaria and Serbia, which both claimed former Ottoman territories in Macedonia; while they’d previously agreed to submit any disagreements to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia for arbitration, the mild-mannered autocrat and his indecisive foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, were unable to come up with a compromise satisfactory to both parties, spelling even more trouble down the road.

Indeed, while the First and Second Balkan Wars were confined to the Balkan Peninsula, they would have continent-wide ramifications foreshadowing the Great War to come. All four members of the Balkan League came out of the conflicts with increased territories and populations, which meant they could field bigger armies in future, making them more threatening to their neighbors. Serbia, in particular, emerged from the Second Balkan War with greatly enhanced power, prestige, and self-confidence.

Serbian Army Oxen/Getty Images

Following the Balkan Wars the neighboring Great Powers, Russia and Austria-Hungary, also adopted more assertive foreign policies, increasing the risk of a much wider European war. By failing to mediate effectively between Serbia and Bulgaria over their competing claims to Macedonia, Tsar Nicholas II ended up alienating Bulgaria, leaving Serbia as Russia’s only ally in the Balkans; from now on, to retain its regional influence Russia would have to back Serbia no matter what, even if this brought it into conflict with Austria-Hungary.

For its part Austria-Hungary, vigilant against Slavic nationalism, was determined not to allow Serbia to score any more military or diplomatic victories. The hawks in Vienna, led by army chief of staff Count Franz Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf, bitterly criticized foreign minister Count Leopold von Berchtold for bungling Austria-Hungary’s response to the Balkan Wars, beginning with his failure to preemptively occupy the Sanjak of Novibazar; the next time an opportunity presented itself, the Viennese war party vowed that Austria-Hungary wouldn’t miss its chance to settle accounts with Serbia.

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
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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
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science
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]

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