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World War I Centennial: Gathering the Fleets

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

March 18, 1912: Gathering the Fleets

“We cannot conceal from ourselves the fact that we live in an age of incipient violence and strong and deep-seated unrest,” Winston Churchill warned the British House of Commons in a dramatic, defiant speech delivered in the gathering gloom of the late afternoon of March 18, 1912.

Churchill, the First Lord of the Royal Navy, was responsible for directing British naval policy in the face of German competition, and took the opportunity to reveal major changes intended to maintain British supremacy in its home waters.

Under the belligerent Kaiser Wilhelm II and his naval chief, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Germany had embarked on a military buildup on land and at sea, including the construction of a German navy composed of super-powerful “dreadnoughts” which would before long be able to contest British power on the high seas. This was unacceptable to Britain because, as Churchill noted in his speech, “We are fed from the sea,” adding: “These are facts which justify British naval supremacy in the face of the world. If ever any single nation were able to back the strongest fleet with an overwhelming army, the whole world would be in jeopardy, and a catastrophe would swiftly occur.”

To fend off this possibility, Britain undertook its own naval build-up, including even more new dreadnoughts. And on March 18, Churchill revealed an important change in the way Britain calculated its naval needs. Previously, Britain had committed itself to the “Two-Power” policy, which called for a Royal Navy large enough to defeat the combined navies of any two likely European adversaries. Now, Britain would recognize realities by focusing on Germany alone as its main naval competitor. While this was sure to infuriate hyper-nationalist Germans, Churchill justified it by pointing out that “the consequences of defeat at sea are so much greater to us than they would be to Germany.”

A New Standard

To maintain a comfortable margin of superiority over the German navy, Churchill revealed a new standard calling for Britain to outpace German naval construction by at least 60% -- meaning, for example, that if Germany planned to build 10 new dreadnoughts in coming years, the Royal Navy would build 16; if Germany planned to build 12, Britain would build 20. Churchill warned that the proportion might have to increase as older ships became obsolete, but left no doubt that Britain, long the world’s dominant sea power, had the resources and facilities to maintain its lead, whatever Germany might build. “There is absolutely no danger of our being overtaken unless we decide as a matter of policy to be so.”

Nonetheless, Churchill lamented the expense involved in what he characterized as a pointless naval arms race, and emphasized that if Germany were willing to slow or even stop her construction of new dreadnoughts, Britain would immediately follow suit -- one of several occasions when he offered Germany a “naval holiday,” similar to nuclear arms limitation treaties of later years. As on other occasions, the offer would be rebuffed -- despite the fact, as Churchill pointed out, that Germany could “wipe out” five British dreadnoughts for every three German dreadnoughts foregone, and so gain more from a “naval holiday” than a hypothetical victory at sea.

Perhaps even more important in the short term, on March 18, 1912, Churchill announced a major reorganization of the existing British fleets, with an eye to containing German naval power in the North Sea. The new deployment plan brought British ships back to home waters from Mediterranean outposts including Gibraltar and Malta, and organized them into three main fleets, composed of eight battle squadrons of eight ships each. This meant that Britain would have to rely on its French ally to guard the Eastern Mediterranean, including the critical Suez Canal, Britain’s lifeline to India and its Far East colonies. Churchill faced criticism for this move, but proceeded anyway -- an indication of how seriously the Royal Navy took the German threat.

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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]