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Getty Images

World War I Centennial: First Balkan War Begins

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Getty Images

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
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]