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World War I Centennial: Dire Straits

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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 13th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

April 18, 1912: Dire Straits

Since the time of the Trojan War, the narrow straits between Europe and Asia have been crossed by merchants and armies, diplomats and traitors. Simple geography made whoever controlled the straits wealthy and powerful – but also a target for those who sought to wrest possession of the vital area. On April 18, 1912, it happened again.

The Ukraine had exported grain to the rest of the world through the Turkish straits for thousands of years, and the ancient trade continued after the region was absorbed into the Russian Empire: in fact by 1912, 45% of all Russian exports passed through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, including 80% of all grain exports and a sizeable portion of Russia’s growing oil exports from the Caucasus.

The Turks could also deny passage to the Russian Black Sea fleet, bottling up Russian naval power – a strategic capability important not only to Turkey but also Britain, which claimed naval dominance in the Mediterranean. Although the Ottoman Empire was weak and declining, the British still counted on the Turks to keep the Russians out of the Mediterranean –the lifeline to their colonial empire in Asia and Australia (in fact the Turks usually denied entry to all European fleets, which suited the Brits fine, just as long as the Russians were included in the ban).

Sensing the weakness of the eastern realm, in September 1911 Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire with an eye to grabbing the provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica (now Libya). While their main interest was North Africa, to end the war the Italians knew they had to squeeze the Ottoman Turks close to their capital in Constantinople, which meant attacking the Turkish straits – and causing an international incident.

Closing Time

On April 18, 1912, the Italian navy bombarded Turkish fortifications guarding the entrance to the Dardanelles, the southern straits. The Turkish forts were equipped with modern Krupp guns provided by Germany, but the Italian ships packed more firepower, damaging Turkish forts on both sides of the straits. To keep the Italians from penetrating further, perhaps even to Constantinople itself, the Turks closed the straits -- to all shipping, not just naval forces -- with huge steel chains stretched across the water, complemented by minefields, torpedo boats, and mobile artillery positioned on shore.

As noted, this was guaranteed to lead to an international incident: some 60 merchant ships of all nations, with an average weight of 4,000 tons, passed through the Dardanelles every day – a huge volume of commerce, which now ground to an abrupt halt. The captains of a number of French and Russian vessels affected by the closure complained to their ambassadors in Constantinople, who in turn demanded damages from the Turkish government. The Turks responded, not unreasonably, that the security of their capital took priority over shipping schedules: the ships would just have to wait until the danger from the Italian attacks passed.

The Italian attack was especially provocative because it came two days after representatives from the Great Powers (France, Britain, Germany, Austria and Russia) arrived in Constantinople to offer mediation – and coincided with the first day of the new Turkish parliament, which was expected to discuss peace terms. The Turks hoped that closing the straits might bring international pressure to bear on the Italians to stop fighting; ultimately the straits would remain closed to merchant shipping for almost two weeks. The fact that the Turkish navy was being trained by British officers threatened further complications if the war wasn’t resolved soon.

Still, the main conflict was between Russia and Turkey itself, contributing to the growing international tensions preceding the Great War. For one thing, the Russians began seriously considering ways to secure the straits themselves – an ambition which would involve them in the conspiracy organized by the Balkan states against the Turks. Meanwhile the Balkan states drew encouragement for their bellicose plans from the obvious weakness of the Ottoman Empire, pushing them closer to the First Balkan War in October 1912.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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