Original image

World War I Centennial: More Guns and Ships for Germany

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 fourth installment in the series. See all entries here.

February 7, 1912: The Army and Navy Bills

After the Second Moroccan Crisis, as European leaders confronted the suddenly very real possibility of a continent-wide war, internal political tensions in Germany moved into the foreground. The sweeping victory by left-wing Social Democrats in Reichstag elections threw Germany’s conservative elites into a panic — but Kaiser Wilhelm II (pictured) and Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg had a plan to co-opt the socialists and defuse the Marxist menace.

Essentially their plan aimed to rally working-class Germans behind the elites by appealing to their nationalist pride, which in turn required stoking conflicts with foreign powers who appeared to be “threatening” Germany (in fact it was usually the other way around). The socialists would be forced either to support their policies, including increased military spending, or open themselves to being labeled as unpatriotic – both of which would undermine their political support. Critically, the conservatives knew that despite their long opposition to “militarism,” the socialists were more likely to vote in favor of military spending that required raising new taxes, hoping this might set the precedent for raising taxes for social spending.

Despite the obvious risks inherent in this plan, the German middle class was persuaded to support it because it promised to relieve simmering class tensions, and also because it received the backing of the powerful and prestigious German military. The reasons the German military supported the strategy became clear enough just a few weeks after the socialist victory, on February 7th, when the Kaiser presented the 1912 Army and Navy Bills to the Reichstag.

Positioned as a necessary response to Germany’s humiliation in the Second Moroccan Crisis, the bills called for greatly increased spending on both the Imperial German Army and the Navy – but especially the Army, which would be crucial to winning a European land war, where Russia was the largest adversary. Meanwhile the more modest increase in the size of the German Navy was meant to deter Britain from intervening on the Continent in support of France.

The 1912 military bills called for spending a total of 1.78 billion Reichsmarks on the German Army and Navy. Of course, this was just the latest in a continuing series of increases in military spending by the German Empire: the total defense budget had increased from an average of 841 million Reichsmarks in 1886-1890 to 1.16 billion in 1901, then 1.3 billion in 1911. But this 37% jump from 1911-1912 marked an unmistakable increase in the tempo of military spending, and it also set a new precedent because it received some ambivalent support from the Social Democrats, who claimed to continue opposing military expansion but supported increased spending because the budget called for a tax on inherited estates.

With the Social Democrats on board, the way was clear for an even bigger increase in military spending in 1913, when the combined Army and Navy budgets jumped a remarkable 35% to 2.4 billion Reichsmarks. Of course, there was no way the surge in Germany military spending would somehow escape the notice of Britain, France, or Russia, all of whom were paying close attention to German moves following their bad scare in the Second Moroccan Crisis, and who were already expanding their own militaries in response to the German threat. They would have no choice but to respond in kind with even more military spending, in what became known as an “arms race” – but was in fact a race to war.

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