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World War I Centennial: Recalling the Messenger

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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 16th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

May 9, 1912: Recalling the Messenger

On May 9, 1912, the mounting tensions between Britain and Germany claimed a high-profile victim, if only in the professional sense, with the resignation of Count Paul Wolff-Metternich (pictured) as German ambassador to London. While presented as his own decision on grounds of ill health, Metternich’s resignation was actually forced on him by his superiors in Berlin, reflecting Kaiser Wilhelm II’s displeasure at the recent failure of naval arms negotiations and exasperation at Metternich’s consistently negative reports about the hostile attitude of the British government. Rather than heed the ambassador’s warnings and adjust their policy to conciliate the British, with typical short-sightedness the German government decided to replace the ambassador.

In an age when international relations were largely built on personal relationships, Metternich had been a fixture of European diplomacy, serving as German ambassador to London from 1903-1912, where he had a reputation as an Anglophile – a German who had fallen in love with English culture, admired the British Empire, and moved with ease in London’s high society. More importantly, Metternich was also widely respected as a voice of moderation who could be relied on to accurately convey British positions to the German government.

All these qualities made Metternich the perfect choice for ambassador when the German government sought friendship and maybe even alliance with Britain – but when relations soured, Metternich’s enemies at home began to undermine his position. One of his biggest critics was Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of Germany’s aggressive naval strategy and a close confidante of the Kaiser.

Tirpitz’s expanded naval construction program was largely responsible for the failure of the Haldane Mission from February 8-12, 1912, when the British Secretary of War, Sir Richard Burdon Haldane, visited Berlin in the hope of reaching an agreement to limit naval arms construction. But Tirpitz managed to lay the blame for the failure on Metternich, who consistently warned the German Foreign Ministry that there was no way the British would agree to Tirpitz’s plans for more German dreadnoughts. Tirpitz insinuated that Metternich was biased by his Anglophile tendencies, and even disloyal – a charge sure to anger the honor-obsessed Kaiser.

Although he wouldn’t present his official papers of recall to King George V until June 11, news of Metternich’s resignation soon leaked out in London, triggering a strong reaction from British officials who saw it as a major blow to any hopes of reconciling with Germany. In fact on May 14, 1912, Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, took the highly unusual step of “expressing the regret that will be felt at his retirement by everyone who has had official relations with him, and by the very large number of personal friends that he has made during his long stay in this country, a regret which I share to the full and feel very much personally.”

Of course, Metternich had merely been the messenger delivering bad news to Berlin: his resignation would do nothing to alleviate the underlying tensions between Britain and Germany. Before long his eventual replacement, Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, would be annoying Tirpitz and the Kaiser with the same kind of strong warnings about British opposition to Germany’s arms build-up. The episode illustrated the risk of self-deception inherent in any autocratic government, with the circle around the Kaiser clinging to unrealistically optimistic views, and simply cashiering anyone who presented awkward or unwelcome information – a tendency that would prove fatal in the coming Great War.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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