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World War I Centennial: The Treaty of Berlin

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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, mental_floss will be taking a look back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. (See all entries here.)

November 4, 1911: The Treaty of Berlin

Ironically November 4, 1911, was supposed to ensure lasting peace, but actually set the stage for the conflict to come. This day saw the signing of the Treaty of Berlin, which was intended to resolve a series of diplomatic conflicts between Germany and France spanning not just Europe but the rest of the world, where their growing colonial empires increasingly ran afoul of each other.

Some of the main colonial strife took place in Africa, where European powers scrambled to take control of huge swathes of land (and their native populations) beginning in the 19th century. A young nation only unified by Otto von Bismarck in 1871, Germany was late to the party: by the first years of the twentieth century most of the continent had been carved up by Britain and France, leaving the ambitious newcomer hungrily picking over the scraps. This was the background to the Moroccan Crisis -- actually, two Crises -- which foreshadowed the coming of the First World War.

In 1905 Morocco was one of the few remaining independent kingdoms in Africa, but was falling more and more under French influence, raising the prospect of yet another chunk of Africa going to France. Angry about Germany getting the short end of the colonial stick yet again, Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to stick a spoke in France’s wheels with typical diplomatic finesse: he went to Morocco and gave a speech supporting Moroccan independence, immediately causing an international incident.

Only instead of driving Britain and France apart, as hoped, the Kaiser’s provocative action managed to push them closer together, as their colonial rivalries now took a back seat to shared fear of their increasingly powerful and aggressive neighbor in Europe.

U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt organized an international conference at Algeciras, Spain, where Germany was firmly rebuffed; it turned out the British and the French weren’t the only ones feeling nervous about the pushy, grabby Teutons. The conflict was finally sort of resolved (but not really) in April 1906 when Spain -- a weak European power that was less threatening to everyone -- stepped forward to take over police duties in Morocco.

Furious about being humiliated in the First Moroccan Crisis (and seemingly oblivious to the fact that it had been mostly his own doing), Kaiser Wilhelm II was determined not to lose face again … which led directly to the Second Moroccan Crisis. When a rebellion threatened Morocco’s weak puppet ruler in 1911, France rushed reinforcements to shore up the sultan’s government and protect their interests in North Africa. Not to be outdone, the Kaiser decided to flex Germany’s new naval muscle by sending the gunship Panther to Morocco, ostensibly for the same purpose. The move was provocative, to say the least: for one thing Germany didn’t really have any interests in Morocco, and the gunship looked a lot more threatening to French forces on the coast than rebels fighting in the interior.

It wasn’t long before the situation escalated: fearing that Germany planned to establish a naval base in the Mediterranean, Britain sent the Royal Navy to keep an eye on the Panther, and Europe seemed to be heading towards an all-out war pitting Britain and France against Germany (and possibly its weak sidekick Austria-Hungary).

Germany's Lovely Parting Gifts

But just as the situation was reaching the boiling point, fears of war (perhaps combined with machinations by French finance officials) helped precipitate a financial crisis in Germany, including a stock market collapse and bank runs. Suddenly weakening on the home front, Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to throw in the towel in Morocco, which now fell under total French domination. The Treaty of Berlin, signed on November 4, 1911, was supposed to provide a fig leaf for this second humiliating retreat by “compensating” Germany with a swathe of malarial marshland in central Africa -- but nothing could paper over the fact that the real prize, Morocco, went to France.

Perhaps even more important, the Treaty of Berlin left Germany nursing even bigger grievances against France and Britain, which the German right-wing military accused of conspiring to isolate and surround Germany (a policy denounced as “encirclement” by German nationalists). And there was a lot of truth in this accusation. Of course hyper-nationalist German officers, like their Kaiser, failed to appreciate that the encirclement policy was mostly a reaction to Germany’s own belligerent moves on the world stage. The countdown to the First World War had begun.

For the next few years, Erik Sass will be serializing the lead-up to World War I, covering events 100 years after they happened. See 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
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]