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World War I Centennial: Balkan Secrets

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

March 13, 1912: Balkan Secrets

Tensions were mounting in Western Europe in the first months of 1912, as French and British leaders reacted with alarm to German plans for an arms buildup. But unbeknownst to them, the next step towards war was being taken a thousand miles away, in the Balkans, where a secret pact was in the works, with the goal of despoiling a once-grand, now decaying empire.

Long past its medieval glory days, the Muslim Ottoman Empire was still intensely hated by the small Christian nation-states of the Balkans, all of which had suffered under oppressive Ottoman rule at one point or another. Greece won its independence in a heroic struggle (abetted by Romantic idealists like Lord Byron) in 1832; after decades of resistance and rebellion, Serbia gained total independence in 1868; the little kingdom of Montenegro followed in 1878; and following a long period of declining Ottoman influence, Bulgaria formally broke away in 1908.

But independence was just the first step: without missing a beat, Bulgaria began plotting a war to seize possession of more Ottoman territory in alliance with the other Balkan kingdoms. Beginning in the second half of 1911, the Bulgarians were inspired to redouble their efforts by Italian victories against the Turks in North Africa, which showed how weak the Ottoman Empire had become.

A Secret Alliance

On March 13, 1912, Bulgaria signed a secret treaty with Serbia – the first in a series of diplomatic agreements that eventually brought together Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro in a secret alliance against the Ottoman Empire, called the Balkan League. Although the defensive portions of the treaty were supposedly directed against Austria, in a secret addition to the treaty the two kingdoms agreed to split the Ottoman province of Macedonia between them, with Bulgaria getting most of the southern portion and Serbia getting an outlet to the Adriatic Sea at the Albanian port of Durres (formerly Durazzo). Bulgaria also had its eye on Ottoman territory along the Aegean Sea, in what is now northern Greece.

In successive months the other Balkan states would be brought on board for a joint attack on the Ottoman Empire, at a date to be decided. Of course, all this was occurring in the context of moves and machinations by Europe’s Great Powers, including Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, all of which were concerned, directly or indirectly, with the strategic landscape in the Balkan Peninsula.

Russia’s main concern was gaining unrestricted naval access to the Turkish Straits at the Bosporus and Dardanelles, where the Ottoman Turks were able to bottle up the Russian Black Sea fleet, blocking it from the Mediterranean; the Russians also felt protective of their Slavic cousins in Serbia. For their part, Germany and Austria-Hungary feared Serbia as a Russian pawn on their southern flank – especially dangerous because Serbs in the Kingdom of Serbia supported the aspirations of their fellow Serbs living in Bosnia, then a province of Austria-Hungary, threatening the territorial integrity of the empire.

While the Balkan plans remained secret for the time being, all this meant that when the First Balkan War did break out in October 1912, it would have diplomatic repercussions far beyond the Balkan Peninsula. Macedonia might seem like a small, isolated place, but Germany and Austria-Hungary were alarmed by the idea of Serbia gaining access to the sea, fearing a Serbian port could easily be converted into a Russian naval base. Likewise, a Bulgarian threat to the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, could also make it easier for the Russian Black Sea navy to enter the Mediterranean. And Serbia’s growing power threatened to disrupt German ambitions to unite Eastern Europe under German economic hegemony.

Just in case the situation wasn’t volatile enough, the Balkan League itself was far from being a stable alliance. Victorious allies could just as easily become enemies, turning on each other over the spoils of war. On March 13, 1912, the fuse on the Balkan powder keg was lit.

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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]