Original image

World War I Centennial: The Greeks Capture Salonika

Original image

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 43rd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

November 9, 1912: The Greeks Capture Salonika

After simultaneous defeats at Kirk Kilisse and Kumanovo, October 22-24, 1912, the Ottoman Empire’s plan for defending its European territories collapsed. In the first half of November the armies of the Balkan League advanced on all sides, with the Serbs seizing northern Macedonia, the Greeks taking southern Macedonia, and the Bulgarians occupying Thrace. But these victories planted the seeds of discord within the Balkan League, whose members would soon fall to fighting over the spoils.

Turks Surrender Salonika

On November 9, 1912, Greek forces led by Prince Constantine, the heir to the Greek throne, captured the ancient city of Salonika without firing a shot after the outnumbered Turkish garrison surrendered. This gave Greece control of one of the oldest and most important ports in the Near East: originally called Thessalonica when it was founded by Alexander the Great’s Macedonians in 315 BCE, Salonika (today Thessaloniki) occupied a strategic position as the main southern entrance to the Balkan Peninsula, where it served as a center of trade. Its cosmopolitan flavor attracted peoples from around the Mediterranean, including a community of Sephardic Jews numbering 60,000-70,000 – around half the total population of 130,000 – many of whom were merchants and shopkeepers.

Because the city had been the second capital of the Byzantine Empire in the medieval period, in the minds of the leaders of the Balkan League, possession of Salonika was important not only for strategic and economic reasons, but above all for reasons of prestige. Indeed, conflict was already brewing between Greece and Bulgaria: the same day the Greeks under Constantine took possession of the city, the Bulgarian General Georgi Todorov, furious at having the prize snatched from under his nose, claimed Salonika for Bulgaria anyway. To enforce his claim, he stationed Bulgarian troops in the city alongside the Greek garrison, which was basically begging for trouble.

Bulgarians Besiege Adrianople and Constantinople

[Click to enlarge]

Salonika wasn’t the only ancient city the prestige-hungry Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand coveted. As the Turks retreated southeast after Kirk Kilisse, on October 29, 1912 the Bulgarians decided to lay siege to the fortified city of Adrianople (Edirne), where over 60,000 Turkish soldiers were dug in behind a ring of fortresses and trenches. To do this the Bulgarians asked for help from their Serbian allies, who were already triumphant in Macedonia; a besieging force of about 106,000 Bulgarians and 47,000 Serbs armed with heavy artillery (which the Bulgarians lacked) encircled Adrianople and began bombarding the city on October 30. But the city’s fortifications, designed by German experts, held out far longer than expected, and the siege would drag on into 1913.

Meanwhile another Bulgarian force pursued the retreating Turkish army to the western outskirts of Constantinople, where the Turks established a strong defensive line at Chataldzha (Çatalca). Here, where the European land mass narrows towards the Bosporus, a line of hills cuts north-to-south across the peninsula from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and room for maneuver is limited even more by coastal lakes on both sides – a perfect spot for defensive fortifications. With their capital now in jeopardy, the Turks wasted no time in creating formidable defenses which brought the Bulgarian offensive to a grinding halt. The prominent role of trenches and fortified machine gun emplacements in Turkish defensive tactics at Chataldzha foreshadowed combat in the coming Great War (although most military observers failed to take note).

Austria-Hungary Confronts Serbia and Russia

There was more foreshadowing to the west, where a diplomatic crisis was brewing between Austria-Hungary and Serbia (and their respective allies, Germany and Russia) which helped draw the battle lines for the final confrontation in July 1914.

Austro-Hungarian officials considered Serbia’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War to be a complete, unmitigated disaster. Serbia was a magnet for Austria-Hungary’s large population of Southern Slavs, who looked to the neighboring Slavic kingdom as an eventual liberator, and the triumph over the Turks could only enhance Serbian prestige in their eyes. This was especially true because after defeating the Turks, Serbia and Montenegro – previously separated by Turkish territory – could now merge into a single nation, apparently the beginning of the long-hoped-for “Yugoslav” unification.

In Vienna, top officials bitterly criticized the Austrian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, for letting Serbia pull off such a huge victory. Serbia’s conquest of Macedonia and long-awaited union with Montenegro were bad enough: Austria-Hungary had to draw the line somewhere, or risk looking totally impotent in the eyes of its Slavic neighbors (not to mention Europe’s other Great Powers). To rescue Austro-Hungarian prestige – and his own reputation – Berchtold decided to take a stand on another important issue: Serbian access to the Adriatic Sea, or lack thereof.

As a landlocked nation, the Serbs had always aspired to have their own port, which would allow them to engage in maritime commerce independently of more powerful neighbors – meaning Austria-Hungary. Top Austro-Hungarian officials also feared that if Serbia got a port on the Adriatic, it might allow its Russian patron to use it as a naval base, cutting Austria-Hungary off from the Mediterranean. While that idea was probably a bit far-fetched, as Serbia’s protector, Russia was expected to back the small kingdom up against Austria-Hungary, setting the stage for a much larger confrontation.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

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