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World War I Centennial: Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece Declare 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 40th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

World War I Centennial: Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece Declare War


Turkish cavalry detailed to defend Constantinople.

Ten days after Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire, the rest of the Balkan League piled on, with simultaneous declarations of war by Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece, which ultimately sent some 750,000 troops across the borders to seize Turkish territory in Europe.

The war on land was divided into three main theatres. To the northwest, the Serbs and Montenegrins both invaded the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, the narrow strip of Turkish territory separating their two kingdoms, while a separate Montenegrin force marched south towards the important city of Scutari near the Adriatic Sea, in what is now Albania. In the central theatre, Serbian, Greek, and Bulgarian troops converged on Macedonia, the main object of the war. Further east, Bulgarian troops headed south into the Ottoman territory of Thrace, hoping to capture the ancient city of Adrianople (Edirne) and maybe even Constantinople itself. Meanwhile at sea, the Greek navy closed in on Turkish-controlled islands in the Aegean Sea and attempted to blockade the Ottoman Empire’s European and Asiatic coastlines.

While the Turkish armies only numbered around 335,000, or less than half the forces of the Balkan League arrayed against them, contemporary observers thought the Turks’ chances were pretty good, as they enjoyed several advantages: Geographically, they held a central position and could choose their battlefields, and the Ottoman administration had also instituted military reforms intended to bring the Turkish armies up to European standards.

But in the end these advantages were either squandered or canceled out by other factors. The Turks had only embarked on their far-sighted reforms in 1911, meaning they were nowhere near complete—in fact, the Turkish armies may have been more disorganized as a result. They also failed to take advantage of their central position by concentrating their forces; instead, they spread their armies out, allowing the forces of the Balkan League to defeat them one at a time. Worst of all, by deciding to boldly take the offensive in Macedonia, the Turkish commander-in-chief, Nazim Pasha, gave up the defensive advantage including choice of battlefields.

To be fair, the Turks faced additional challenges. The Slavic inhabitants of the contested regions tended to be sympathetic to the invaders and hostile to their Turkish rulers, meaning the Turks had to contend with guerrilla warfare by their own subject populations in addition to the forces of the Balkan League. (Of course, the Turks’ earlier atrocities against Slavic Christians were at least partly to blame for the animosity.)

But the first and biggest mistake, as noted, was Nazim Pasha’s decision to immediately bring the fight to the invading armies, which resulted in disaster when ill-prepared and only partially mobilized Turkish forces confronted the Serbs at Kumanovo on October 23 and 24, and the Bulgarians in the simultaneous battle of Kirk Kilisse, October 22-24.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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