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World War I Centennial: Councils of 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 second installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

January 1912: Councils of War

After the turmoil caused by the Second Moroccan Crisis, ending with a humiliating diplomatic defeat for Germany with the Treaty of Berlin in November 1911, Europe’s leaders were suddenly realizing that a general, continent-wide war was now a distinct possibility. While most of them still hoped to avoid this calamity, they felt compelled to start making serious preparations for the worst-case scenario.

In France, the top general, Joseph Joffre, was increasingly uneasy about the German threat—specifically the German plan of attack. In the event of war, Germany’s numerical advantage (68 million people versus 41 million for France) and superior industrial base would allow it to field a larger army. For their part, the French hoped to be able to neutralize these advantages with a string of forts behind their border with Germany.

But as Joffre suspected, the Germans had no intention of sending all their troops against heavy French fortifications in this area. Instead, they would form an uneven pincer, with the weaker arm attacking the French fortifications, and the stronger arm smashing through tiny, neutral Belgium for a surprise attack targeting Paris from the north. The Germans didn’t particularly care that this violation of Belgian sovereignty would elicit international outrage, as they were playing for all the marbles—and the victor writes the history books.

One hundred years ago today, on January 12, 1912, Joffre attended a meeting of the Superior Council of National Defense, France’s top civilian-military committee, where he asked for permission for French troops to advance into Belgium as soon as German troops attacked France -- a preemptive move that would put France in the position of violating Belgian neutrality first, before Germany. But Premier Joseph Caillaux rejected the idea, arguing that France had to maintain the moral high ground, while noting that a French invasion of Belgium would give Germany a propaganda victory before the first shot was even fired. Joffre would meet with the same dogged resistance from Caillaux’s successor, Raymond Poincare, effectively frustrating the French military’s plans to blunt a German offensive through Belgium. In 1914, the result would be disastrous.

The British Response

Meanwhile, the French weren’t the only ones busily freaking out about the suddenly-less-hypothetical possibility of a general war in Europe. Following the Second Moroccan Crisis, it became clear to Britain’s leaders that the two main branches of the British military, the Regular Army and the Royal Navy, did not see eye to eye when it came to emergency war planning.

Specifically, the Regular Army expected the Royal Navy to give top priority to transporting army units across the English Channel to France, where they were needed to help shore up French defenses against the expected German invasion. However at the Imperial War Council held on August 23, 1911, the navy leadership on the Board of Admiralty proposed that the British strategy should consist of amphibious assaults against Germany. If the Second Moroccan Crisis had actually resulted in war, this confusion and conflict could have crippled the British war effort, dooming their French allies.

In January 1912, the British government hurried to iron out the conflict between the Army and Navy by creating a new Naval War Staff responsible for managing the Navy in wartime—taking over many of the duties formerly assigned to the Board of Admiralty. Explaining this bureaucratic coup, the navy’s top civilian commander, First Lord Winston Churchill, emphasized: “It is necessary that there should be a close and whole-hearted cooperation between the War Staff at the Admiralty and the General Staff of the Army.”

Although Churchill would go on to have a baleful influence on wartime strategy with his support for the disastrous offensive at Gallipoli, the Naval War Staff he created would play a key role in coordinating overall British strategy in 1914.

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 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
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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.