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World War I Centennial: The Haldane Mission

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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 fifth installment in the series. See all entries here.

February 8-12, 1912: The Haldane Mission

With tensions mounting in Europe, the British government tried to head off an arms race with Germany through diplomacy – specifically, a proposal which would limit the number of ships both sides could build. The British overture was delivered by Secretary of State for War Richard Burdon Haldane (pictured, holding hat) during a secret visit to Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin from February 8-12, 1912.

There’s no question Germany’s naval construction program put it on a collision course with Britain’s Royal Navy. The world’s preeminent sea power, Britain relied on its massive navy to protect its far-flung colonial empire and guarantee its security against European aggression. Britain’s position as an island nation protected by a large navy meant it could avoid spending a lot of money on a large standing army in peacetime, in contrast to continental powers like Germany, France, and Russia. But it also meant the British were extra-sensitive to any attempt to create a rival naval power – which is exactly what Germany set out to do.

Under the belligerent Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany planned to build a high seas battle fleet that would eventually be able to contest British naval supremacy in the seas around Europe. Beginning in 1908 this included an intensive construction program for “dreadnoughts” – the most powerful vessels then afloat, first introduced by Britain in 1906, comparable to aircraft carriers today.

After building eight modern dreadnoughts from 1908-1910, Germany added three in 1911 and another two in 1912, with no intention of stopping there. In fact, by 1914, Germany would have 17 modern dreadnoughts in service, compared to Britain’s 29 – and would be on course to surpass the British navy sometime around 1920, if construction continued as planned.

The British certainly felt the pressure, and launched a new naval construction program to ensure the Royal Navy maintained its margin of superiority over the German navy: spending on new ships rose from £7.4 million in 1908-1909 to £9.6 million in 1909-1910, and £13.1 million in 1910-1911. Meanwhile over the same period spending on the rest of the navy, including operations and maintenance, jumped from £32.2 million to £40.4 million.

The naval expansion put considerable strain on the budget, prompting First Sea Lord Winston Churchill to warn: “There is no prospect of avoiding increases in the future… unless the period of acute naval rivalries… comes to an end.” On that note Churchill condemned the naval arms race as “folly, pitiful folly,” adding that “concerted effort to arrest it or modify it should surely rank among the first of international obligations.”

Slowing Down the Arms Race

It was in this context that Haldane attempted to persuade the German government to accept voluntary, bilateral limits on dreadnought construction. But his visit to Berlin came to nothing, as Kaiser Wilhelm II – with his usual diplomatic finesse and impeccable timing – had chosen to present an ambitious new naval construction bill to the Reichstag the day before Haldane arrived.

Whether or not it was deliberately intended to spike the British negotiations, the new naval bill was almost certainly part of a long-term strategy to extract even more concessions from the British government. The German government, including Kaiser Wilhelm II and his advisors, believed that the naval arms race would eventually force Britain to agree to a sweeping “grand bargain,” basically allowing Germany to dominate Europe in return for a German promise not to interfere with Britain’s overseas colonial possessions.

However this strategy was based on a serious misunderstanding of British motivations: while it was certainly crucial to hold on to the empire, it was equally important to maintain a balance of power in Europe. Based on its historical experience, Britain simply couldn’t afford to let a single country dominate Europe, as France had under Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte, with disastrous consequences for Britain. German incomprehension of this guiding principle of British policy was yet another factor pushing the continent towards war.

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]