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World War I Centennial: Germany Throws Down the Naval Gauntlet

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

March 22, 1912: Germany Throws Down the Naval Gauntlet

In the years leading up to 1912, Britain and Germany became locked in a naval arms race based on the two imperial powers’ fundamentally different perceptions and aims. Britain wanted (and expected) to maintain its longstanding domination of the seas, as a fundamental guarantee of its security as an island nation. Germany believed it had to be equal with Britain to gain the respect it deserved as a new, rising world power – and more specifically, to gain a free hand on the European continent.

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Royal Navy, tried to head off the conflict with measures designed to convince Germany that a naval arms race was unwinnable. Chief among these was a threat to outpace German construction of super-powerful dreadnoughts by a margin of at least 60%, and possibly more, if Germany chose to escalate. Meanwhile Britain offered to slow or even halt the construction of new dreadnoughts if Germany would agree to a bilateral naval arms limitation treaty.

However, political pressures in Germany – stemming from its humiliation in the Second Moroccan Crisis, the recent victory of the Social Democrats, the agitation of the hyper-nationalist Flottenverein (Naval League), and above all the belligerence of the German elites under the leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm II – meant that Germany couldn’t back down.

On March 22, 1912, the German government chose to escalate the situation yet again.

Naval Novelle: An Amendment to Escalate

Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, one of the chief instigators of the Anglo-German naval rivalry, wanted to boost naval construction from two to three new dreadnoughts per year from 1912-1917 – a huge increase that would probably have precipitated an international crisis. Tirpitz had the Kaiser’s ear, but other voices in the German government – including Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and the German ambassador to London, Count Metternich – warned that this proposal would push Germany towards war with Britain.

Still, the compromise solution wasn’t much better. At the Kaiser’s order, Tirpitz drew up an amendment (novelle) to the existing naval construction program, which Bethmann Hollweg — who still supported some naval construction as a means of applying diplomatic pressure to Britain — presented to the Reichstag on March 22, 1912. It called for three additional dreadnoughts to be built over the next five years, adding one ship per year in 1912, 1914, and 1916. Tirpitz also wanted to redistribute personnel so more ships would be ready for active service.

Thus the amendment envisioned a German navy composed of three active battle squadrons, including 25 dreadnoughts and eight battlecruisers, versus 40 “capital ships” in the Royal Navy. True, this wasn’t quite as bad as adding six ships, and might even be construed as a “concession” to British opinion – but this just goes to show how unrealistic the German leadership was being. Considering that the existing naval program was already unacceptable to the British, there was no way the addition of even more ships could be viewed as anything other than added provocation. Britain had already made it clear it would not give in to German intimidation, and it was equally clear to Tirpitz, at least, where the arms race was headed: in April 1912 he would write a secret memorandum to the Kaiser titled “Bringing about the outbreak of war,” asking whether Germany “should… speed up or attempt to delay it?”

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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]