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World War I Centennial: The Socialist Menace

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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 third installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

January 1912: The Socialist Menace

After the Second Moroccan Crisis, Europe’s political and military leaders were hurriedly making preparations for a possible continent-wide war – but some of the fiercest power struggles were internal. The tension caused by these domestic political conflicts ultimately pushed the international situation even closer to war.

The bitterest political conflict occurred in Germany, where in January 1912 the country’s conservative elites were thrown into a panic by Reichstag elections which gave the Social Democrats – a socialist party representing industrial workers – the lead position in parliament.

It would be hard to overstate the German elites’ hatred of the Marxist Social Democrats, whom they considered indistinguishable from communists; German industrialists and aristocrats who owned landed estates were terrified that the socialists meant to abolish private property, declare public ownership of industrial concerns, and generally strip the upper classes of their wealth and power. Meanwhile conservative religious figures in the Protestant and Catholic churches feared their aggressively secular tone, accusing them of undermining religious faith in the working class. Perhaps most crucially, the German military leadership (the vaunted Prussian general staff) abhorred the Social Democrats’ goal of abolishing the professional, standing army and replacing it with a popular militia.

And the history of the previous decades gave them no comfort, as successive elections seemed to portray a Marxist march to victory – especially remarkable considering the party was banned from organizing or campaigning until 1891. From just 124,500 votes in 1871, the Social Democrat vote had grown to 550,000 in 1884, 1,427,000 in 1890, over two million in 1898, and over three million in 1903. A financial collapse and economic downturn in Germany, triggered by the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911, led to a big increase in support for the Social Democrats, who attracted a whopping 4,250,000 votes in a series of ballots from January 12-25.

German Unity

On January 25, the last round of voting gave the Social Democrats a total of 110 seats in the Reichstag, out of an overall total of 397. Although this was far from an absolute majority, it made them the largest party in the Reichstag, meaning they could no longer be ignored. It fell to Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (pictured) to form a new government including a political party that most of Germany’s conservative elites viewed as the enemy.

Although he was a member of the traditional Prussian officer class, Bethmann-Hollweg was considered relatively liberal by the standards of the day, which might have made him a good intermediary between the conservatives and the socialists. But because the two groups were so bitterly opposed, in the end it meant that no one trusted him as he oscillated back and forth between the two extremes. This prompted him to pursue an incredibly dangerous strategy.

The only way to neutralize the socialist menace and unite the country behind Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bethmann-Hollweg decided, was to appeal to their patriotism as Germans. And the only way to do this was by presenting them with an external threat – which in this case meant engineering conflicts with the Western powers, Britain and France. Here Bethmann-Hollweg would have the eager support of the conservative elites, who had long been stoking their own paranoia about an international plot by Britain, France, and Russia to “encircle” Germany.

The risks of this strategy were obvious: if diplomatic conflicts with the Western powers got out of hand, the result could be an actual war of the kind that was just narrowly averted during the Second Moroccan Crisis. But Bethmann-Hollweg trusted his own ability to “have his cake and eat it”: he felt confident he could unwind the diplomatic tangles he helped create, reaping the domestic political rewards of unity and harmony while avoiding the disaster of a general war.

This proved true enough during the Balkan crises of 1912-1913, when Germany and Britain worked together to defuse international tensions. But when more serious threats to the peace arose (not coincidentally, also in the Balkans) it would prove disastrously misguided.

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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]