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World War I Centennial: The Belgian Question

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

February 21, 1912: The Belgian Question


After his previous attempt was rebuffed, French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre (pictured) took the opportunity of a change in France’s civilian leadership to ask a second time to be allowed to violate Belgian neutrality in the event of war with Germany. However, at a secret meeting of the French Superior War Council on February 21, 1912, Joffre found the new premier, Raymond Poincare, not much more receptive to the idea than his predecessor, Joseph Caillaux; ultimately Poincare left the question ambiguous.

At first glance there seemed to be some good strategic arguments in favor of marching into Belgium before the Germans did so themselves. The Germans were likely to try to slip around heavy fortifications along France’s eastern frontier by sending one wing of their army through neutral Belgium to the north; a preemptive invasion of Belgium might be able to stop them before they got to France. Moreover, the French doctrine of offensive a outrance, or total attack, called for boldly bringing the fight to the enemy wherever he stood. On this point, the Belgian plains offered a good arena for offensive operations of the type envisaged by French strategy (in the event World War I combat was characterized by defensive stalemate, with little resemblance to outdated French offensive tactics).

Even in the context of “total attack,” however, there were good reasons to avoid violating Belgian neutrality first, as Poincare reminded Joffre. Most important by far was the likely British reaction: if Germany violated Belgian neutrality first, Britain’s treaty obligations to Belgium would automatically put her on the French side against Germany (where the British government and public opinion wanted to be anyway). But if France gave up the moral high ground by violating Belgian neutrality first, Britain would very likely remain on the sidelines; stern reminders from British diplomats and officers reinforced the need to respect Belgian neutrality on several occasions around this time.

In this situation, the French leadership judged British aid more strategically valuable than trying to head off the German attack through Belgium. Indeed, at the February 21 meeting Joffre said he was counting on six British infantry divisions and one British cavalry division to be ready for action in France two weeks after mobilization, leaving him little choice but to accept British constraints and forgo a preemptive invasion of Belgium.

An Unsatisfying Compromise

But the idea of French intervention in Belgium wasn’t totally off the table. Poincare and the rest of the French leadership were aware of the German threat to Belgium, and through it France, but fear of diplomatic repercussions in Britain prompted them to split the difference with an unsatisfying compromise. The French military might be allowed to intervene preemptively in Belgium in the event of a “certain menace of German invasion.” Of course this didn’t serve to advance the argument – or French strategy – very much, as it simply restated the basic French dilemma without clarifying what, exactly, constituted a “certain menace.” Would a German troop buildup near Belgium suffice? And if this was the scenario, what about the British concerns about Belgian neutrality?

In his memoirs, Joffre recalled that France’s civilian leaders left the answers deliberately ambiguous to avoid alarming the British and give themselves flexibility – but ended up saddling Joffre and other war planners with the complex task of planning for multiple contingencies, many of them mutually exclusive, depending on the timing of German thrusts.

Ultimately the French military’s doctrine of total attack led them to focus on planning to attack German armies where they would be sure to find them – coming across the Franco-German border, from Germany. But Joffre never doubted that Belgium would be the main battlefield in a war between France and Germany, even if the exact shape of the German attack was still unclear, meaning he would essentially have to improvise strategy in the first days of the 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
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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.